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Mary Cassatt’s Early Life and Struggles to Become an Artist

The painter Mary Cassatt is famous for all the Mary Cassatt artworks and her work as an activist for equal rights for the sexes in the art. She was the first woman in many exhibitions and movements that were exclusively male-orientated in the late 1800s.  

When you look at Cassatt’s life, you realize that most of her early life was a struggle. As a young person, she struggled to get trained, be acknowledged as an artist, and sell her first paintings. Her determination to succeed as an artist often motivates new painters. In this article, we’ll have a look at some of the struggles she had to face. 

Mary Cassatt’s Early Life and Struggle to be Accepted in Art Academy

The American painter Mary Cassatt was born in Pennsylvania in 1844, but her family moved to France in 1851, lived there for about two years, and then moved to Germany. They lived in Germany from 1853 to 1855. Then, in 1855 Cassatt’s oldest brother died, and the family returned to America.

From an early age, Mary Cassatt indicated that she wanted to be an artist, and this decision was the beginning of her struggles. Her family, especially her father, objected to her becoming a professional artist. But despite his objections, he allowed her to enter the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia at 15. 

Studying arts in the middle 1800s was not so easy for a woman. Women were not allowed at many of the art schools. So, she struggled to get accepted at a school that allowed female students. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was one of the few schools allowing a woman to study arts. 

Mary Cassatt’s Struggle for Equal Rights

But for women, even in this Academy, there was not the same teaching and training as for men. For example, female students could not use live models initially, and their training was primarily centered on drawing from casts. 

She also struggled to get her women student friends interested in art as a career. About 20% of the students at the Academy were women, but very few were worried about the “limited” training and teaching offered. Most of them perceived art to be a socially valuable skill. Very few of the students saw themselves as professional artists. They were not as determined as Mary Cassatt to make art their career. 

To a great extent, Mary Cassatt struggled for equal rights for the sexes in the art environment alone. But unfortunately, she didn’t get any assistance from her family, the male students at the Academy, or even the other women art students. 

Mary Left the Academy and Went to France

She was so disillusioned by the circumstances at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts that she decided to stop her studies. She was not satisfied with the slow pace of instruction, and the condescending attitude of the teachers and male students didn’t make it easy to study.

Many young artists who encounter many struggles would leave the art scene and follow another career. For example, if the painter Mary Cassatt had stopped at that stage of her life, many of Mary Cassatt’s famous paintings would not have been created. 

She decided to study the old master on her own and moved to France. But it was not the end of her struggles to study arts. The “École des Beaux-Arts” also didn’t allow women as art students. So, determined to get trained by some of the best artists of the time, she applied to study privately with a master’s from the school.  

Jean-Léon Gérôme, a famous and highly regarded art teacher, accepted her as a student. Between the art lessons, Cassatt went to the Louvre daily and copied the works of the masters. She also met other women art students at the Louvre because women were not allowed to attend cafes where the avant-garde socialized.

Back to America – New Struggles

In 1870 Mary Cassatt returned to her parent’s home in the United States. This period in her life was also a struggling phase. Her father was still not supporting her painting career. She traveled around the U.S. to try and sell some of her paintings. She traveled to Chicago and placed two artworks in a gallery in New York. 

When you learn about Mary Cassatt famous paintings, you can’t understand why her earlier works couldn’t sell. However, some art scholars believe that if she hadn’t gone through this struggle, she wouldn’t have been able to create her later famous paintings.      

As if her struggles with people, artists, critics, and buyers were not enough, her paintings placed in a Chicago gallery were destroyed during the Great Fire in 1871. It is unknown how many works were destroyed in the Fire, but it was a significant setback in her already struggling career.

Fortunately, she was commissioned in 1872 by the archbishop of Parma to copy some Correggio works. This commission helped to revive her career. First, she went back to Europe to complete the job, then studied in Antwerp for a while before returning to France for good.

Struggles Came to An End to Only Bring Another Struggle

If you study Mary Cassatt’s drawings and paintings, it seems as if from 1872, her struggles were at an end. She joined the Paris Salon and exhibited with the group in 1872, 1873, and 1874. 

In 1877 the American painter Mary Cassatt became a part of the French Impressionist group, and she was the one and only American artist in the group. 

Ironically, after the struggles at the beginning of her career and the successful one, Mary Cassatt encountered another struggle at the end of her career. Her eyesight started to deteriorate in 1900, and it forced her to stop painting. 


Although the American painter Mary Cassatt’s art career started with many struggles, she overcame them and became famous in her lifetime. But unfortunately, losing her eyesight was another struggle she had to fight at the end of her career and, sadly, couldn’t overcome.  

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