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Mary Cassatt – American Impressionist in France

Mary Cassatt - American Impressionist in France

An important reason why kids need art education is the ability to understand the past. Studying the life and works of painters from past eras offers insight into their personal, social and historical perspectives. At Golden Road Arts, we provide lessons on some of the most loved artists from all types of artistic genres.

Artist, printmaker and teacher Barbara Mason discusses the life and artwork of Pennsylvania-born impressionist Mary Cassatt, who lived most of her life near Paris, France. Cassatt was a skilled oil painter and pastel artist who was mentored by her friend Edgar Degas. Her use of soft colors and fluid brushwork made her a leading artist in the impressionist movement.

Mary Cassatt – American Impressionist in France Lesson Plan

Learn About Mary Cassatt’s Life and Artwork Video

Follow along with Barbara to learn about Mary Cassatt and create some beautiful art along the way. Barbara uses watercolors, pencils and crayons to recreate some of the techniques used by the artist.

Create Impressionist Art Inspired by Mary Cassatt

Read along using the video transcription below as Barbara looks at the life, work and artistic techniques of Mary Cassatt.

Hi, I’m Barbara Mason. Welcome to Golden Road Arts. You can see that I still have on my mask and because not everybody is vaccinated and we’re still being very careful. But when I’m talking to you today, I’m going to take my mask off because it’s kind of in my way.

So today we’re going to talk about a woman artist, a woman named Mary Cassatt. Mary Cassatt was born in 1844 in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, which is pretty close to Pittsburgh. So, let’s see. That is 180 years ago – a really long time ago. So, Mary Cassatt’s family had a fair amount of money – her dad was a banker – and they had so much money that when she was just a young child, maybe about five or six, they went to Europe, and they stayed in Paris for a few years. When she and her family moved back to the United States they move to near Philadelphia. She was only about 11 or 12 when she came back to the United States, and she was very insistent on the fact that she wanted to be an artist and she enrolled in the Academy of Arts when she was 15 or 16 years old. All her life, she wanted to be an artist and it was pretty unusual for a woman at that time to want to be an artist and not anything else – she didn’t want to get married or to have kids. She just wanted to be an artist and her family was supportive.

So, when she graduated from the Academy of Arts when she was a young woman she went to Paris to study art, but she found out when she got there that they wouldn’t take women into the Academy where all the artists studied and so she was pretty upset about that. You know, she was sort of a feminist at a time before. This was before women were allowed to do everything that they can do now, so she decided she would just go to the Louvre, which was a big museum in Paris, and she would paint all the old masters. She would study them and then she found a couple of teachers who taught at the Academy, and she was able to take private lessons from them.

So even though she didn’t go to the main school, she certainly got all the main teaching and there were a lot of American artists in Paris at that time, and she had a lot of fun learning to be an artist. And after she had been there a few years, there was a war that broke out between France and Prussia. And so, all the American artists went back to the United States because it was a very scary time to be there.

Now we’re talking about maybe 1870 or 1871 now. It takes a long time to go across the ocean in a boat, you know, now you can do it in a week. But in 1870 or 1871, that wasn’t the case, depending on the weather. If the weather was bad, it could be six weeks maybe.

And so she went to Philadelphia, and her father was not happy with her being an artist. He thought that was not a reasonable thing for her to do. And she wanted to come back to Europe when the war was over, and he said absolutely not. He was not going to let her go back to Europe. He wasn’t going to pay for it and so she was very disappointed, and she studied with some local artists and with some masters in the United States. But the United States was a young country, and it didn’t have the amazing artwork that was available in Europe in 1870 or so.

Finally, she was a very accomplished artist and so finally she was able to get a commission to paint two paintings of Correggio for a Chapel in a church in the town that she lived in, and the town paid for her to go to Parma to copy these paintings and so she got back to Europe without her father’s money. She got on a boat and went to Europe. I think he probably did give her money too, but he just didn’t – he wasn’t excited about her being an artist – and so she stayed in Parma for a while. Parma was a university city in Italy’s Emilia Romagna region and from there she went to Spain because it was less expensive to live in Spain.

We have a lot of pictures of work that she has done and some of her work when she was still in the United States. Some of her work she exhibited in Chicago –  it was right when they had the Chicago Fire –  and it was destroyed. And a lot of her work when she was really young – people didn’t keep it, and so we don’t have a lot of work when she first started out being an artist.

But when she went back to Europe and then went to Spain and then eventually went back to Paris, we have a lot of examples of her work.  One of the pieces I’m going to show you today is a picture of two children sitting on a beach.  We’re going to put this on the Internet. This is a black and white picture, but this picture is actually in color – it’s an oil painting. The reason I chose the two children sitting on the beach – this one that we’re going to paint today – is because I thought it was fairly simple, simple shapes and it would be easy for you to paint. It’s hard to paint people. (At least) not unless you’ve had a lot of lessons, it’s not easy to do.

So, I’ve copied this picture and what I did was I took my paper and I laid it over this and I held it up to the window. I laid my piece of paper over the top of it, and I traced it. What happened was, we traced it like this, and then I put it on my scanner, and I made a copy of it and what happened is it reversed. Now, what I want to do is I want to get this picture onto this piece of paper, but it’s pretty hard to do that. I can’t put this piece of heavy watercolor paper through the printer. Well, maybe some printers, but I don’t think in my printer it would work.

So, what I want to do is get it on (this paper here) and what I’ve done on the back of it is I’ve taken my pencil and I’ve gone over and over and over the lines, like this, to make them real dark. So that I could just draw my image on this side and then it wouldn’t go anywhere, it would just stay right where I put it and I could see the lines afterwards. So, I’m just going to make it a little bit darker because I’ve already drawn it once. So, the lines aren’t really dark when you do this. Maybe if I had a darker pencil they would be. So, what I’m going to do is I’m just going to use a little piece of tape here, and I’m going to hook this down because I don’t want it to move around. One piece of tape at the top and a little piece of tape at the bottom. Well, I’m just going to take my pencil and I’m going to go over these lines. I’m going to push pretty hard.

I guess I should look this up and look to make sure I can see it that is coming through. Yes, there’s my line. OK, so now I’m going to do my boat. So, one of the things that Mary Cassatt did a lot – she really didn’t want to do portraits; it wasn’t anything she was interested in doing – she wanted to paint what she called pictures. And so, she wanted them to have a little more feeling than just a person who’s sitting in a chair. The portraits that were done at this time were very, very formal, so people would just sit very still, and someone would paint them, and she wanted her work to have a little more life than that. But when she finally went back to France after living in Spain for quite a long time an interesting thing happened. Her parents – her dad and her mom and her sister – actually moved to Paris and they retired there and so even though her dad didn’t want to pay for her to be in Europe, he and his wife and her sister ended up going to Paris and so she spent the latter part of her life with her family close by.

And then something else that happened to Mary Cassatt, which was very interesting. She met a man named Edgar Degas –  we haven’t talked about Mr. Degas yet but we’re going to do that in a lesson real soon. Mr. Degas was a very well-known painter at the time. And he was one of the painters that we’re called Impressionists. So, the Impressionists were people that used light a lot.

I’m going to see if I got (my lines) over that. I wasn’t paying close enough attention here. I’m just going to peek, and on here and see if I can see it. Yes, OK.

So (the Impressionists) they wanted to capture the light. It was very important to them to capture the light and so their paintings were a little more fluid than the strict paintings of the time. And he was great friends with Mary Cassatt. He had a studio close by. And I understood from one of the books that I was reading about Mary Cassatt is that he (Degas) would come over in the evening after he was finished painting on his way home from his studio and he would stop by her studio and see what she had done for the day. He was very complimentary and very enthusiastic about her work. She was a pretty good artist, and when they met, he was like a mentor to her. He gave her a lot of his time. And eventually, he encouraged her to become one of the Impressionists.

So, to be an Impressionist her work changed a little bit, and it got a little more fluid. And she started to paint things that she knew that were around her and what was around her were the people in her life, and so she has a lot of pictures of her brother and his wife and the children. It was important to her to draw family scenes and so even though when she was young she said she wasn’t going to do portraits, most of her work ended up being pictures of mothers and their children and she did a lot of paintings of families – really beautiful paintings of families –and she eventually became pretty successful and she sold her work and so she no longer had to ask her dad for money for her paints because she was selling enough (of her) work that she could buy our own paint. And she was actually selling enough work that they did the fourth Impressionist show in Paris and Mary Cassatt was one of the people that gave money to help it be organized and she sold quite a bit of work at that show.  And what happened because she had given this work to help it be organized, it turned out that some of the beginning Impressionists – the young people who were just starting to work this way – they were able to actually show their work in the exhibition where they might not have been able to. They might not have been able to afford it.

So, I’ve done this (painting) a couple of ways. This painting I want to show you. I’ve done one as a watercolor, which is the paper I’ve got here so we could try and do this a little bit as a watercolor. All I’ve done is I’ve taken my traced Image and I’ve turned it over and I’ve drawn on it with a pencil. And then I’ve drawn through it and so what’s happened is it’s allowed me to transfer – it’s allowed me to transfer my image so I can see where all the pieces are here – so I can paint it. It’s not very dark, but I can see it.

So, this is the first one I did with the watercolor, and you can see I just kind of blocked in the shapes, and now this is the same one and I did it with markers. Now the markers were a little harder to do because I didn’t have a whole lot of color choices in markers. There’s like 10 colors, so it’s just a little harder. I made their skin pink because I figured they were out in the sun. They’re probably sunburned. And then this is done actually with crayons and so with crayons you know there’s 48 crayons. I had a lot more choices of colors with the crayons, so this is the same image done in three different styles and this watercolor paper. It’s really hard to do watercolor without watercolor paper. These are just very inexpensive watercolors. The brand name I think is Prang.

So, let’s see I want to give her – maybe I’ll give her kind of yellow-brown hair. So, you just have to get these wet a little bit. And you can paint. So, when you paint you want to just use the tip of your brush. You don’t want to scrub ever, you just want to let your brush flow around because if you scrub it doesn’t give you a very good picture and it is also pretty hard on the brush. So now we’re going to do her face, so we want to do her face. And the problem is when you when you’re doing this if you have two colors right together and you paint them before with, they are dry, what happens is sometimes they’ll bleed into each other. To now I made her arm that color – the same color as or face. And then her legs going to be that color too. So, this is just painting everything the same color that you think would be the same color. Just see the little of her skin over here underneath her sock. And then this girl you can just see a tiny bit of her face here, and you can see her arm. And away. So, when you see this picture on the Internet, the actual picture, it’s an oil painting, so it doesn’t look anything like this. But this is very fun to take a picture of Mary Cassatt and say, how would it be if I did it, what would it look like? What would it look like if I did it?

And you know one of the things that artists do a lot is they go to museums, and they copy the work that’s on the walls of people that were very famous. And it’s one of the ways that they learn how to how to paint because they’re copying work of people that have learned how to do it, and so they are copying it to try to make it so they can try to learn. Because you know nobody is born being an artist, you have to learn how to do it, and one of the ways that you can learn is to copy other people. Now we got water here. So, I’ll just do our water just a little bit of water across the top. OK, so now. What color are we going to use for her to dress? I think I used green before. Let’s just use red this time. So, you can see I’m not really doing anything fancy, I’m just kind of pretending I know where things are. Notice I’m just using the point of the brush. Just the point. And I’m going very, very slow. So, this little dress looks like it might have a slip underneath it. This section here is a different color.

So, it doesn’t matter if we leave white spots around things. OK, let’s do this dress – let’s do this one purple. You know the nice thing about your artwork? You can make it any color you want. It doesn’t matter what the color of the real one is, you could make your work any color that you like. And then you can go back when this is dry, and you could draw on it and put the lines in. I’m not doing the lines now because it’s hard to do them in watercolor. We’ll make her slip green, and we’ll make her socks, green. She’s got shoes on. Those I think they’re going to be brown. So, when you’re doing this drawing, we’re going to put it on the Internet. As I said, and you can just print it out on your printer, and you could either copy it like I did and put it on watercolor paper the way I did it. Or you could – if you have some heavy paper –  you could run it through your printer. I didn’t think my printer would do it, but maybe yours will. Well, there’s our shoes. And now we’ve got to get her bucket. So, what color are we going to make her bucket? I guess we’ll make her bucket blue.

She has a shovel. Somebody’s used up almost all the black in my watercolor set – I don’t know who would have done that. Probably one of my grandkids. OK well I’m going to stop now, but you can see how easy this is to do. You don’t have to be a great painter to copy somebody, but it doesn’t look bad. It’s pretty good. I’m happy with it.

So, I’ve got my finished watercolor here that I could work some more on. My marker color here, which it didn’t come out as good as I’d hoped, but there weren’t very many choices of colors. But with the crayons like how many colors I got with the crayons, so the colors are pretty good,

So, I want to talk a little bit more about Mary Cassatt. She became an Impressionist painter, and one of the things that the impressionist did is they painted a lot more, a lot looser than was the standard at the time. Mary Cassatt never got married, she just spent her life as an artist, which was fairly unusual for the times, but we’re glad she did because she was a great artist, and her work is really wonderful, and you can see it in museums. We’re going to put some of it on the Internet and we’re going to list the museums that have her work. And if you live close to one of those museums, maybe you can go and see it.

The other thing she did was she did a lot of printmaking, and so there’s a whole book on the color prints that she made, and it was a way for artists to make 10 copies of something instead of just one. And they could make a little metal plate and engrave it. And then they could print it and so they could take an original image and make it into 10. And then they could sell them a lot cheaper than a painting – a lot faster – and so prints were one way for artists to make some money.

Thank you for visiting me at Golden Road. I’m going to put my mask back on because I’m leaving the room. If I can find it here. And I want to make sure that I don’t get sick and that I don’t make anybody else sick. So, I want you to remember Mary Cassatt. We have a lot of famous women artists, and she was one of them – not one of the first but certainly one of the best – and I hope you enjoyed our talk about Mary Cassatt and that you will remember her when you see her pictures because she did a lot of pictures of mothers with their children and her work is really lovely.

So, thanks again for coming to see me at Golden Road and I’ll see you next time.

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