Much had happened during the years Cassatt had absented herself from France. The Impressionistes were emerging as a tour de force, indeed, they had established their own exhibitions in blatant challenge to the Salon.
For that reason they were initially known as the Independentes, then the peculiar effect of the soft-focussed, somewhat imprecise style of brushwork brought them to the lasting term of Impressionism. Claude Monet exhibited his landscape Impression: Sunrise in the 1872 Paris Salon, which provoked the art critic Louis Leroy to coin the term "Impressionism" in a satiric review published in Le Charivari.
Cassatt was delighted to find that one woman preceded her in the beginnings of this new and exciting movement, in the talented form of Berthe Morisot. Morisot, who exhibited the grand sum of nine works in the first Impressioniste show, did turn out to be conventional in one regard, marriage. She spent part of each year with the Manet family at Fécamp, and soon declared her intent to marry Eugène, Edouard Manet’s brother.
Paris in the late 1870's was having a renaissance of it's own, Napoleon III had ordered much reconstruction and the famed Grands Boulevards were introduced. The cultured now paraded ostentatiously along Haussmann, Le Champs, and attended the new Opéra Garnier. Commerce had room to soar, tourists flocked, artists prospered. The Belle Époque had begun, and cultural modernity arrived to move it swiftly forward.
Cassatt had been doing portraits for some time, she was much sought after by Americans traveling abroad in the years following the Civil War. These bought baguettes and paid the rent, but did not satisfy other, deeper needs. In 1877, an admired acquaintance and fellow painter, Edgar Degas, invited her to join the growing ranks and exhibitions of the Impressionistes.
Cassatt wrote, "I accepted with joy. Now I could work with absolute independence without considering the opinion of a jury. I had already recognized who were my true masters. I admired Manet, Courbet, and Degas.
"I took leave of conventional art. I began to live.” A burgeoning and close friendship with Degas began, which lasted right up until Degas’ death in 1917. Both Degas and their outrageous peer Auguste Renoir greatly influenced her style of painting, and encouraged her to a more free and liberated manner and use of color.
That signature 'unfocussed' perspective suited her themes, which often included children, pets and gardens. Degas would later say that for him, the influence was mutual. Once, on seeing some of Mary’s work, Degas quietly admitted that he would not have believed en principe that a woman could draw so well.
While a tremendously social creature, Cassatt did not openly pursue relationships with men. It has been proposed that she and Edgar Degas entertained more than a close friendship. Good for them if they did, but there is seemingly no proof either way, and TMZ was not about to make up our minds for us.
She did have a healthy self respect, which certainly served her well in the patriarchal art world of that era. It was a deliberate choice on her part not to marry, although she encouraged her nieces and nephews to visit, and to model. She adored children, as is unmistakably clear in her prolific portrayal of them.
Cassatt would later say that there was "no teaching" at the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts. She was tremendously impatient with the snail's pace of the instructors, and understandably put out that women were not afforded the same creative opportunities as their male counterparts.
Her parents were distinctly unenthused about her concentration on art as it was, and patently hoped it was all a flight of fancy. They hoped in vain. Those years had not been easy for anyone, the Civil War raged on and Pennsylvania was right in the thick of things. Fed up with what she saw as the arrogant patronization of both teachers and fellow students, Cassatt left the Academy to pursue her own course of study, one which she structured around the Old Masters.
By 1866 Cassatt was ready for more challenging pursuits, and had badgered her father into agreeing that she might undertake study in Paris ~ with the mandatory accompaniment of her mother and family friends to provide the obligatory chaperonage. Off they sailed, leaving behind the ravages and aftermath of the violent North South conflict. Cassatt was twenty two.
What an art world to be discovered, to be relished, in the Paris of 1866 ... the prospects must have been overwhelmingly exciting for the young American painter. She did not lack confidence, but knew she wanted for the necessary classical skills and techniques that would bring her work to life.
Regarding self-portraits, she made a decidely unusual choice via her 1878 painting Woman in Black at the Opera. It depicts a woman, lately presumed to be the artist herself, seated in an opera box, apparently alone, leaning forward to peer through opera glasses at the other world of the stage.
It was a bold and revolutionary perspective for a woman artist.