Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was a part of the French Impressionist movement in art. In fact, she was one of the very few only and who was the only American artist during the Impressionist movement’s productive years.
Although she was born in Pennsylvania, Mary Cassatt spent much of her adult life in France. There she met Edgar Degas and exhibited some of her works with the Impressionists. Unfortunately, many of her early works brought to America were lost in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Unfortunately, she developed eyesight problems in her 50s, and as a result of the deterioration of her eyesight, she was forced to stop her career.
Mary Cassatt’s Early Life
Mary Cassatt was born in Pennsylvania, but she and her family moved to France and lived there from 1851 to 1853. Then, from 1853 to 1855, they lived in Germany. When Cassatt’s oldest brother died, the family returned to America.
In the 1860s, she studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy in Philadelphia. This Academy was among the few schools open to female students. However, she got fed up with the attitude of the male students and administration of the Academy, and in 1866 she began several European travels. She finally settled in Paris, France.
She took art lessons in Paris and spent her time studying and copying famous paintings and drawings at the Louvre.
Briefly back in America and then settled in Europe
In 1870 Mary Cassatt returned to the United States. Unfortunately, this period in her career was not of her best years. Her painting career suffered from a lack of support from her father. As a result, she couldn’t get her paintings sold, and her paintings placed in a Chicago gallery were destroyed during the Great Fire in 1871.
Fortunately, she received a commission in 1872 from the archbishop in Parma to copy some Correggio works. This commission helped to revive her career. But, unfortunately, she had to go back to Europe for the job. She then studied in Antwerp before returning to France for good.
Back in France, Mary Cassatt joined the Paris Salon. She exhibited with the group in 1872, 1873, and 1874. Art scholars that study Mary Cassatt’s drawings and paintings find that her most famous works were created in the 1880s and 1890s. In 1877 the American painter Mary Cassatt joined the French Impressionist group – the only American artist in the group.
Her paintings sold well, and she also began to collect paintings of other French Impressionists. In addition, she assisted several American friends in acquiring French Impressionist art for their collections. As a result of her help to get Impressionists’ artworks in America, Impressionism in art became known in the United States.
How Her Visual Problems Influenced Mary Cassatt’s Artworks
When you learn about Mary Cassatt famous paintings, you discover that, to a large extent, she switched from oils to pastels in her last works. As a result, her color range became limited, and her canvases were larger when she used oil.
The reason was that her eyesight started to deteriorate in 1900, and in the end, it led to almost total blindness. The eye deterioration forced her to make changes in the way she worked. In the end, it forced her to stop painting altogether.
In the first stages of eye deterioration, she fought against her “disability” by using larger canvasses. She only used colors she could still clearly see for her oil paintings. And by using pastels instead of oil, she could still create artworks. However, she could work with less precision than with oil with pastels.
All the “adjustments” in her style and way of work were made to accommodate the development of a severe loss of sharpness of vision (understanding).
The Detail in Mary Cassatt’s Famous Paintings – Before the Eyesight Deterioration
Before her eyesight had started to deteriorate, the painter Mary Cassatt was known for the precision and detail in her work. It can be seen, for example, in her early painting of her sister Lydia. It was painted when she was 36. In this painting, the delicate lace of her sister’s hat and the folds of her dress are depicted in the smallest detail.
As her visual problems advanced, the fine detail of the subjects became strident, bold strokes of color. A good example is her pastel of Margot. It was created when she was 58 years old and had already experienced visual difficulties for two years.
Although the pastel painting of Margot is a lovely picture in its own right, she is depicted with a more limited range of colors and little detail in comparison with the earlier Lydia painting.
The American Painter Mary Cassatt’s Eye Deterioration – The History
Cassatt’s visual problems began in 1900 when she was 56 years old. Then, her sharpness of vision (acuity) began to decline. She told friends that her sight was getting progressively dimmer.
In 1910, she stopped her printmaking due to her eye deterioration. Then, in 1912, at age 68, she was diagnosed with cataracts by the same ophthalmologist who had earlier treated the painter Degas.
Cassatt’s visual problems escalated by lack of care, as it was difficult to find doctors to treat civilians during WWI. In 1915, at the age of 71, Cassatt was forced to give up her work as a painter. Around 1919 she was also diagnosed with diabetes and experienced concurrent retinopathy.
Her visual decline and diabetes had a tremendous impact on her psychological well-being as she lived the last 11 years of her life in almost total blindness.
The American Painter Mary Cassatt was a unique person and artist. She was either “a first” or “one of the first” in many instances – one of the first female students studying art at the Pennsylvania Academy, the only American women Impressionist, and a member of the Paris Salon, to only mention three. Not even the Great Fire in Chicago could stop her career when she was young. But unfortunately, the loss of her vision in her later years forced her to stop her career.