T he fate of most individuals who gain fame and fortune abroad is to be less successful in their own countries. This generalization does not apply—at least today—to the American-born painter Mary Cassatt, who spent the better part of her life and career in France. Her identification with the cause of French Impressionism during the heyday of the movement in the last quarter of the nineteenth century did not prevent her from gaining a heroic position among artists in her native country. Indeed, the majority of her works are found today in American collections, while just a small number of paintings remain in France, where her name is much less familiar than those of her fellow Impressionist painters Degas, Monet, or Renoir. However, Cassatt’s fame in the United States was won slowly, after a period of continued struggle, and began to manifest itself only after the turn of the century when the main body of her work had already been created. From her childhood onward Cassatt was a free- spirited, independent-minded, and determined

person who relentlessly pursued her goal of becoming not only an artist but a great artist. This strong will never left her throughout her entire life. As the French traveler Alexis de Toc- queville commented in his famous work Democ- racy in America (published 1835–1840), an American girl “has scarcely ceased to be a child when she already thinks for herself, speaks with freedom, and acts on her own impulse.” These same characteristics apply fully to Cassatt, who, with a mind of her own, acted at times against the wishes of her family, particularly concern- ing her father’s reservations about her choice of career. After all, the Cassatt family belonged to the upper middle class of Pennsylvania, and she was expected to conform to the standards of her social background. However, unlike the common assumption that women of the Victorian era were individuals struggling for freedom and independence from social constraints, Mary Cassatt was not alone. She had many female peers among her fellow

Self-Portrait detail; c. 1878. Bequest of Edith H. Proskauer; 1975, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In 1877, Cassatt was officially introduced to Edgar Degas and decided to join the Impressionists in their next exhibition. As she later told her biographer Achille Ségard, “At last I could work with complete independence without concerning myself with the eventual judgment of a jury. I already knew who were my true masters. I admired Manet, Courbet and Degas. I hated conventional art. I began to live.”


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