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Mary Cassatt Gallery     Prints.     Full biography.
Mary Cassatt (1844 - 1926)
Cassatt was born in Pittsburg and attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. She traveled extensively through Europe with her parents and siblings and in 1874 she settled permanently in Paris. Although she had several works accepted for exhibition by the tradition-bound French Salon, her artistic aims aligned her with the avant-garde painters of the time and in 1877 she joined the impressionists. Her innovative compositions explore the lives of women - attending the opera, drinking tea, writing letters, caring for children in a straightforward manner free from sentimentality. She created an ambitious mural representing modern woman for the 1893 World's Fair.
Boating Party
Arranging Her Hair
Black Hat


Girl Arranging Her Hair, 1886
oil on canvas, 75.1 x 62.5 cm (29 5/8 x 24 5/8 in.)
National Gallery of Art

It was Edgar Degas who invited Cassatt to participate in the impressionist exhibitions, and the two remained close associates. Degas respected Cassatt's work, seeing in her careful compositions an approach to art that was deliberate and well thought out, like his own. Degas was known for his sharp criticism of other artists' work. He once complained to Cassatt: "What do women know about style?" She took his words as a challenge to produce a work whose appeal derived, not from a conventionally pretty subject, but purely from artifice, the painter's skill, and style. This painting is the result.

She chose a subject that Degas himself had often depicted: a girl she described as "a servant type, the most vulgar kind" at her toilette. The beauty of the picture comes from the rigor of the composition and its harmonized contrast of pinks and blues -- in the sitter's nightdress, in the background, and even in her skin. While the moment is casual, even private, the girl's pose and the arrangement of furniture behind her are artfully contrived. Note, for example, how the chair back, the dry sink, and mirror-frame rise in stairsteps parallel to the motion of her arms, echoing and enhancing their upward sweep.
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