Mary Cassatt was one of the few American artists in the Nineteenth Century to achieve international recognition. She was the only American invited into the circle of the French Impressionists. The fact that she was a woman in an art world wholly dominated by men only heightens her achievement.
Cassatt was born into an affluent family in western Pennsylvania. In 1860 she enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. (Among her fellow students was Thomas Eakins.) Though hardly a progressive institution, the PAFA did at least admit women, though few were expected to go on to professional careers. However, a professional career was exactly what Cassatt was determined to have. She endured the Academy for several years, drawing from plaster casts of antique sculpture and European paintings in the Academy’s collection. Through copying she mastered the technical skills of a painter. In 1865, after the conclusion of the Civil War, Cassatt made her first visit to Paris. She diligently sought out instruction from leading French painters, most notably Jean Léon Gérôme, and achieved early success when her paintings were accepted in the Paris Salons of 1868 and 1870.
Settling permanently in Paris, Cassatt grew disenchanted with the conservative art presented at the Salon. The turning point came in 1877 when Cassatt’s Salon entries were rejected. She then accepted her friend Edgar Degas’s invitation to exhibit with the group of radical painters whose work challenged the art establishment. From then on, Mary Cassatt was recognized—equally criticized and praised—as a card- carrying member of the Impressionists. It is at this pivotal point in Cassatt’s career that she paints the picture now known as Portrait of Madame X Dressed for the Matinée.