SUBJECTS — Visual Arts; World/France; U.S./1865 -1913; Biography;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Talent; Romantic Relationships;


AGE: 8+; No MPAA Rating (but suitable for all ages)

Drama; 1999; 56 minutes; Color. Available from

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Mary Cassatt wants to be a great Impressionist painter. It is the late 1870s, and she has moved from the U.S. to Paris, France to pursue her art. She is preparing for an important exhibition when her brother and his rambunctious family unexpectedly arrive for a visit. To make things worse, the parents move on to the south of France, leaving the busy artist to take care of her nephew and two nieces. What will happen to Cassatt’s carefully constructed creative life? “Mary Cassatt: American Impressionist” is a fictionalized account of that visit in which, after several false starts, Cassatt establishes a lasting relationship with her nephew and nieces.

This film was made for children and is one of the critically acclaimed Artists’ Specials from Devine Entertainment.


Selected Awards: 2001 American Library Association Notable Children’s Video Award; 2000 Platinum Award, Oppenheim Toy Portfolio (featured on NBC’s Today Show); 2000 KIDS FIRST! Coalition of Quality Children’s Media – “All Star Rating;” 2000 Emmy Award Winner – Best Editing; 2000 Emmy Award Nominee – Best Direction in a Children’s Program; 1999 Parents’ Choice Gold Award Winner.

Featured Actors: Amy Brenneman, Jonathan Koensgen, Charles Powell, Thomas Jay Ryan, Noah Shebib, Charlotte Sullivan, Emma Taylor-Isherwood.

Director: Richard Mozer.


“Mary Cassatt: American Impressionist” will introduce children to one of America’s most important painters and to the Impressionists. It shows the art world of Paris in the late 19th century. The movie also explores the creative process of a painter and Cassatt’s relationship with Edgar Degas, one of the great groundbreaking painters of that era who exhibited with the Impressionists.


MINOR. The filmmakers took a number of liberties with the historical record. Some of these are discussed in the Helpful Background section.


Briefly describe impressionism to your child and look at the paintings copied in this Learning Guide. Describe some of the changes in society that made Impressionist paintings popular. See the Helpful Background section.

Tell your child that Edgar Degas was an inspiration for Cassatt. They became friends, and he gave her advice. On one occasion he even reworked the background of one of her paintings. The visit by Cassatt’s brother and his family really happened, and Cassatt formed strong loving relationships with her nieces and nephew in that visit.


Renowned American painter and print maker Mary Cassatt was born in 1844 in Pennsylvania to a prosperous financier and his wife. Between 1861 and 1865 she took art classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. She moved to France in 1866. Cassatt’s work was accepted at the Salon in Paris in 1872. Four more annual Salon exhibitions followed.

Girl Arranging Her Hair, 1886

Then one day she saw paintings by Edgar Degas exhibited in an art dealer’s window. Cassatt said, “I used to go and flatten my nose against that window and absorb all I could of his art. It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it.” [What Makes a Cassatt a Cassatt page 12.] Cassatt was also influenced by the work of the Spanish painter Francisco Goya. One of the first to employ the technique of Au premier coup, translated as: at the first stroke, Goya used single applications of color right from the tube, rather than the old way of applying a number of layers of paint to create colors. This made pictures appear fresh and spontaneous.

Cassatt met Edgar Degas in 1877 and they became lifelong friends. He championed her work and invited her to exhibit with the Impressionists. Cassatt was the only North American artist to be accorded that honor, participating in the years 1879, 1880, 1881, and 1886. When Degas invited her to exhibit with the Impressionists, Cassatt told her biographer that she “accepted with joy” and that finally, at the age of 33, she “began to live.” [Mary Cassatt, A Life page 108.] Degas would stop at her studio and look over her shoulder, help her obtain models, and make suggestions about how to handle background. (The scene in the film in which Degas took a brush and reworked the background on one of Cassatt’s paintings, recalls an actual incident in which he did just that. [Ibid. at 125 & 126] One of the paintings that he worked on was Little Girl in a Blue Armchair shown below.) Degas once teased Cassatt with the remark, “What do women know about style?” “Girl Arranging Her Hair,” a skilled study in line and composition, was Cassatt’s response to this challenge.

This film shows Cassatt’s tremendous dedication to art, her self-possession, and her strength of character. When asked how she could deal with strong personalities such as Degas she said, “I am independent! I can live alone and I love to work.” [Mary Cassatt, A Life page 149.]

Cassatt painted the members of her family repeatedly. In 1877, her parents and sister came to live with her in Paris. Several years later her favorite brother Alexander, his problematic wife Lois, and their four children arrived for a long-delayed visit. (It appears that this visit inspired the plot of the film.)

Up to this point in time, Cassatt had spent little time with her nieces and nephews. On this occasion Alexander and his wife continued with their travels, leaving the children in Paris. The responsibility for caring for the children was taken by Cassatt’s very capable mother. During that summer, Cassatt’s relationship with the children gradually blossomed as she sketched and painted them. By the end of the summer even Alexander’s wife appreciated the bond that had developed between Cassatt and the children. The visit was the beginning of a strong attachment between Mary Cassatt and her brother’s family. They visited Paris every other year thereafter. [Mary Cassatt, A Life pages 150 – 156.]

Portrait of Alexander and Robert, 1884-85

Young Mother Sewing, 1902

One of the principal motifs of Cassatt’s mature work was her tender, glowing portrayals of mothers and their children. During the same period, only one male artist, Auguste Renoir, portrayed the world of domestic intimacy. See, e.g., Mary Cassatt: Painter of Mothers and Children

Mary Cassatt, like many other artists, was influenced by the exhibition of Japanese prints held in Paris in 1890. She crafted a series of 10 colored prints, e.g., Woman Bathing, reflecting the influence of the Japanese masters. In these etchings her focus shifted to line and pattern, whereas in the past, it had been on form. Through these works she brought her printmaking technique to perfection.

Cassatt never married. After 1900, her eyesight began to fail, but she was able to keep working until 1914. France awarded Mary Cassatt the Legion of Honor in 1904. She died in 1926.

Additional Historical Liberties Taken by the Film:

Mary Cassatt and the author Louisa May Alcott never actually met. However, Louisa’s sister, May Alcott, was also trying to establish herself as a painter in Paris during the 1870s. She and Cassatt became friends.

May Alcott, in letters to her sister, enthusiastically described her friend Mary. Based on these letters, Louisa May Alcott used Cassatt as a model for a character in an unfinished novel about female artists. [Mary Cassatt, A Life p. 102]

While Cassatt painted many pictures of members of her family, the model for “Little Girl in a Blue Armchair” was not her niece, as described in the film. The model was the daughter of friends of Degas.


The Impressionists burst on the Paris art scene in 1867. From then, until about 1886, artists such as Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Guillaumin, Bazille, and Cézanne held sway as the modernist avante-garde of the art world. Mary Cassatt was in the second rank of Impressionist artists. Impressionism was the first important movement that broke away from classical traditions to introduce new techniques and fresh approaches to subject matter.

The Impressionists attempted to convey the first impression that a live scene makes on the eye, especially the fleeting quality of color and light. They often preferred to paint outdoors and used a palette of vivid colors. Revolutionary (for the time) techniques employed by the Impressionists include broken brush strokes and sometimes impasto, or paint thickly laid on the canvas with a palette knife. Impressionism also spread to the world of music and influenced artists everywhere. See Impressionism from the Webmuseum.

The Cup of Tea. (Portrait of Lydia), 1879?

Impressionism was followed by the Post-Impressionist movement whose most famous exemplars were Van Gogh (see Vincent, The Life, and Death of Vincent Van Gogh and Lust for Life), Gauguin, Cezanne, and Toulouse-Lautrec (see Moulin Rouge). Edgar Degas (see Degas and the Dancer) has been classified as both an Impressionist and a Post-Impressionist, but really defies classification. Cassatt and the Post-Impressionists were very taken with the flattened perspective and heavy outlines of Japanese prints. Her own printmaking reflects this influence, and her later work is identified with this school.

There are a number of changes in society that gave birth to the modern trends of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Abstract painting. Painting no longer served primarily the Church or the royal court. Patrons were the upper and middle classes of a society that was increasingly democratic, materialist, and secular. Science, technology, political revolution, industrialization, and urbanization caused substantial changes in society. There was a questioning of the old societal conventions and dogmas. In addition, photography took away from painting its role as the means of accurately portraying the visual world. Freed from the role of being the only means of visually representing reality, artists could freely explore line, shape, color, and composition. The inner world of feelings and imagination, as well as the manipulation of color and form for purely aesthetic appeal, offered new frontiers to the artist willing to move beyond traditional painting. The combination of a changed society and freedom from the need to represent reality were the preconditions for modern art.

Tea, 1879/80

Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878

The Salon was an official exhibition of art sponsored by the French government. In 1667, the first Salon was held when King Louis XIV sponsored an exhibit of the works of the members of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. By 1737 the Salon was an annual event. In 1748 the jury system for evaluating submissions to the Salon was introduced.

During the French Revolution, the Salon was opened to all French artists, although academicians controlled most of the exhibitions and prescribed every aspect of eligible paintings. Artists were completely dependent on the Academy’s acceptance. Without it, no one would buy their work. In 1863, a group of artists who had been rejected by the Salon (including Edouard Manet) set up their own show, the Salon de Refuses (Salon of the Refused). This was the end of the Academy’s 200 year domination of French art, and paved the way for the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874.

Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), the sister-in-law of Edouard Manet and the granddaughter of rococo painter Fragonard, is acknowledged as the first woman Impressionist. Morisot and Cassatt were both good friends and rivals. Unlike Cassatt, Morisot did not believe that women had to choose between a life as an artist and having a family. She married Eugene Manet, Edouard’s brother, and had a daughter.


1. See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.

2. Why did Mary Cassatt go to Paris to pursue her art? Why couldn’t she have lived and painted in New York City, Rome, or London?



1. Were the sacrifices that Mary Cassatt made for her art (for example, living away from home, not having a husband or children, working hard) worth it? Would you make those sacrifices if you felt you were talented enough? Are those sacrifices necessary today?

2. Evaluate the incident in which Degas worked on the background of one of Mary Cassatt’s paintings. What does this incident say about the following: That Mary Cassatt would allow Degas to modify one of her paintings; that Degas would take the trouble to modify one of Cassatt’s paintings.

Suggested Response:

Mary Cassatt had an excellent self-image; Mary Cassatt had tremendous respect for Degas; Degas had respect and regard for Cassatt and her work.



3. What did Katherine learn about romance during the course of the film?


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.


(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)

1. What would we have lost if Mary Cassatt had not always done her best? What would she have lost?


  • Assignments, Projects, and Activities for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction;
  • Find the titles of all the Cassatt paintings that appear in the body of the movie. Some are true copies and others are altered from the real paintings. Describe how each copy is different form the original. Suggested Response: Hint: Check the montage of paintings at the very end of the film. A student naming all the paintings and answering correctly could win a prize, such as an inexpensive print of a Cassatt painting.
  • Compare Cassatt’s life and level of artistic success with that of Berthe Morisot.
  • Research the lives of creative and interpretive female artists of the 19th century including Fanny Mendelssohn (composer), Anna Pavlova (ballerina), and Sarah Bernhardt (actress). Which found the highest level of public acceptance? Why? Dramatize your findings in a skit where several of the artists have tea together à la Cassatt and Louisa May Alcott as shown in the film.
  • Research the life of an important female visual artist of the 20th century such as Georgia O’Keefe, Sonia Delaunay, Frida Khalo, Selma Burke, or Louise Nevelson. What part (if any) did their relationships with famous male artists play in their success?
  • Paint the same scene as a realist would and then as an Impressionist might. (For a non-studio art class, these scenes could be extremely simple). One option could be for two students to paint together, as Cassatt and Degas did in the film (and actually, briefly did in real life).


Mary Cassatt, An American in Paris, by Philip Brooks, ages 9 – 11; Mary Cassatt, by Susan E. Meyer (First Impressions series), age 12+, Mary Cassatt, by Mike Venezia, ages 4 – 9. For a book about another female creative artist of the same period, see Hidden Music, The life of Fanny Mendelssohn, by Gloria Kamen.



rambunctious, “a good match,” “old maid,” beau, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism.



In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

  • Mary Cassatt, A Life by Nancy Mowll Mathews, 1994, Villard Books, New York;
  • What Makes a Cassatt a Cassatt? by Richard Mühlberger, 1994, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Viking, New
  • “Cassatt, Mary” Encyclopædia Britannica [Accessed October 19, 2002].
  • “Impressionism” Encyclopædia Britannica [Accessed October 19, 2002].
  • “Salon” Encyclopædia Britannica
  • “Painting, Western.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2003. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. 15 Sep, 2003 . [Accessed October 20, 2002].

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