Mary Cassatt, the only American invited to exhibit with the French Impressionists, was a native Pittsburgher. An outspoken individualist, she pursued a career as an artist over her parents' opposition, studying first at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and then crossing the Atlantic to continue her training in Europe. Cassatt settled permanently in Paris, where Edgar Degas noticed her work at the Salon of 1874. In 1877 he invited her to exhibit with the Indépendants, later called the Impressionists, with whom she showed her work until 1886.
Between 1891 and 1893 Cassatt took particular interest in the theme of women picking fruit, a subject that had also been treated by Courbet, Degas, Morisot, Pissarro, Puvis de Chavannes, and Renoir. Cassatt made it the center panel of her largest work, a three-part, twelve-by-fifty-eight-foot mural titled Modern Woman (now destroyed), which was commissioned in March 1892 for the south tympanum of the Women's Building at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.
Young Women Picking Fruit, which may be connected to the mural commission, shows two women, one reaching to pick a piece of fruit, the other sitting meditatively, holding a pear in her lap. According to the artist, the pear tree represents the tree of knowledge; and in plucking its fruit, these modern women express their desire for equality and intellectual recognition.
Cassatt participated in eighteen "Carnegie Internationals" between 1899 and 1926, and she served on the Foreign Advisory Committee for the International from 1897 to 1906 and in 1923. Her talents as a connoisseur were important in the development of many major American art collections, and her personal collection included hundreds of Japanese prints and objects, Persian miniatures, and Simon Vouet's Toilet of Venus (ca. 1640; CMA No. 52.7).