How Many of Mary Cassatt’s Paintings Were Lost in the Great Chicago Fire?

The painter Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was one of the very few women who were part of the French Impressionist movement in art. She was the only American artist during the Impressionist movement’s productive years. She is known for her paintings of women busy with ordinary tasks. 

Born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, the artist 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. 

This article delves into Cassatt’s life and the different periods in her long life of 82 years. We’ll also look at an example of Mary Cassatt’s famous paintings. 

Mary Cassatt’s Early Life in America and Europe

Although Mary Cassatt was born in Pennsylvania, 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.

She studied art from 1861 to 1865 at the Pennsylvania Academy in Philadelphia. This Academy was among the few schools open to female students. However, Cassatt found the attitudes of the teachers and male students patronizing. She also found the pace too slow. As a woman, she was also banned from using live models. She could only draw from inanimate objects. 

She got fed up, and in 1866 Mary Cassatt began several European travels. She finally set in Paris, France. She took art lessons in Paris and spent her time studying and copying famous paintings and drawings at the Louvre.

A Brief Stay in America Again, the Great Fire, and Settling in Europe

In 1870 Mary Cassatt returned to the United States to her parent’s home. Unfortunately, this period in her life was not one of her best years. Her painting career suffered from a lack of support from her father. 

She traveled to Chicago and tried to sell some of her paintings. She also placed two artworks in a gallery in New York. Although her work had attracted many “admirers,” she couldn’t sell her paintings. Her paintings placed in a Chicago gallery were destroyed during the Great Fire in 1871. Art historians are not sure how many works were destroyed in the Fire, but it was a significant setback for her career.

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.

Learn about Mary Cassatt’s famous Paintings after 1872

Back in France, Mary Cassatt joined the Paris Salon. She exhibited with the group in 1872, 1873, and 1874. Although she created many great paintings during the 1870s, art scholars that study Mary Cassatt’s drawings and paintings find that her most famous works were created after this period in the 1880s and 1890s.

In the 1870s, she began to study with Edgar Degas, and in 1877 the American painter Mary Cassatt joined the French Impressionist group – the only American artist in the group. 

From 1879 she began exhibiting with them at the invitation of Degas. 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. 

In the early 19th century, Cassatt served as an advisor to many major art collectors, stipulating that they eventually donated their purchases to American art museums.

Painter Mary Cassatt During and After the 1880s and 1890s

Mary Cassatt’s parents and sister joined her in Paris in 1877, and the volume of her painting suffered when her sister and mother fell ill. However, after her sister died in 1882 and her mother recovered soon, she started to create many artworks again. 

After seeing Japanese prints at an exhibition, she moved from Impressionism to her own style. Her work frequently depicted women involved in ordinary tasks – especially with children. Cassatt traveled to Egypt in 1910 and was impressed with the beauty of its ancient art. But she didn’t utilize what she had seen in Egypt as the trip exhausted her.

By 1912, Mary Cassatt had become partially blind. She stopped painting in 1915 and had become blind by her death in 1926.

One of Cassatt’s famous Paintings created in the 1890s: “The Child’s Bath”

The Child’s Bath – Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt created this painting in 1893. It is an oil on canvas painting. The painting depicts a mother bathing a young child. This is a typical example of Cassatt’s work and choice of subjects. The subject is an everyday scene that is “special by not being special.” It also depicts a child – another characteristic of her paintings. 

The woman is sitting on an ornamented carpet, and she holds the child on her knees. The child has an “ordinary” white cloth around its abdomen, and the woman is wearing an everyday home dress with solid vertical stripes. The woman holds the infant protectively around its waist with her left hand. The other hand carefully washes the child’s limbs in a water basin. It can be observed that the left arm of the child braces against the mother’s leg while its other hand grips its right thigh. 

The paint strokes are layered and rough, which creates thick lines that outline the figures and make them stand out from the background. 


The American Painter Mary Cassatt was a very 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 mention three. Not even the Great Fire in Chicago could stop her career!

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