*** artists illustrating boys fashions: Mary Cassatt

Artists Illustrating Boys' Fashions: Mary Cassatt (American, 1844-1926)

Mary Casatt

Figure 1.--This engraving was made during Mary's first trip abroad in 1854. Interestingly, she and her younger brother Gardner seem more interested in the artist than the chess game between brother Robbie and her father. Gardner was abot 5 years old and Robbie abour 12. Note Gardner's Scottish outfit. Robbie died only a year after this engraving was made. Click on the image for a fuller discussion.

Perhaps the artist most associated with wonderful images of childhood is the American impressionist artist Mary Cassatt. Mary was the daughter of an affluent Pittsburgh businessman, whose French ancestry had inspired him with a passion for his ancestrial home. It was natural therefore that Mary, with her interest in art, would be drawn to France. As much as we admire Cassatt's work, we have not given her great attention in HBC. This is primarily because she primarily focused on very young children in non descript clothing or infants being bathed. As a result, they often do not include depictions of period clothing in which we are primarily interested. There are, however, a few interesting images of older children in period clothes.


Mary's father, Robert Simpson Cassat (later Cassatt) was an affluent Pittsburgh businessman from a respectable, conservative family. He made his money on the stock market and land speculator. The ancestral name had been Cossart. The family descended from French Huguenot Jacques Cossart, who came to New Amsterdam in 1662. Despite the persecutiion of the Huguenots, the family had a passionate love of France..


The couuple had seven children. Two died in infancy. The children included: Katherine (1835-35), Lydia (1837- ), Alexander (1839- ), Robbie (1842-1855), Mary (1844-1926), George (1846-46), and Joseph Gardner (1849- ). He studied in Germany and became an important railroad executive in America. Mary was cloest to Alexander who proved to be a successful businessman. He married a niece of President James Buchanan, argueably the worst American president. Robbie had health probalems and died at a young age while the family was in Hesse. I do not know much about Gardner, the youngest brotheer yet.


Mary was born in 1844 and grew up in Pittsburgh. Mary traveled extensively as a child throughout Europe with her parents and siblings.


Mary first studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia (1860-64). Her studies tookplace during a tumultous time in America--the Civil War. America in the 1860s was still an artictic backwater. The Academy was one of the few art institutes in America at the time. She at the vey young age of 22 continued her studies in Europe, traveling extensively to view the work of the great masters in the major museums. Once in Paris, she studied with prominent academic painters and then independently at the Louvre. She returned to the United States for a short period, but went back to Europe in 1871, to paint and copying the old masters Italian, Spanish, and Belgian museums.


Cassatt was determined from an ealy age to become a professional artist. Yong women from respectable families might be allowed to dable in art, it was not seem appropriate for them to persue an artistic career. Not only did Cassstt do this, but she played a leading role in the revolutionary art movement of the day--Impressionism. After traveling widely in Europe, she settled permanently in Frnce in 1874.

The Impressionists

Cassatt settled of course in Paris during 1874. She was honored by having one of her paintings accepted to be shown at the Salon. She soon met the impressionist painters. She met Edgar Degas in 1877 who invited her to join his circle--a unique honor for a woman. She remained closed to him throughout the rest of her life and he had a great influence on her painting. Degas introduced Mary to the other impressionist artists. Cassatt especially appreciated Degas' work, but Courbet and Manet were also favorites. Mary participated in the exhibitions of 1879, 1880, 1881 and 1886, but refused to do so in 1882 when Degas did not exhibit. Mary was very important to the impressionist movement. She was the only American artist invited to show her work in the now-celebrated Impressionist exhibitions in Paris. Unlike most of the other impressionist artists, she was person of means who could provide some support to the movement. As she was an American, she also could promote impressionist works in the United States. Her brother Alexander was especially helpful in this regard, a Mary's urging bought paintings from Degas, Manet, Monet, Morisot, Pissarro, and Renoir. He became the first important collector of impressionist paintings in America. Mary also incouraged her friends, such as the Havemeyers, to add impressionist works to their collections. As a reult, she played a key role in the formation of some of America's most important collections of impressionist art.

Casatt family

Figure 2.--Mary Cassatt in this portrait painted her brother Alexander and her favorite nephew Robert Kelso Cassatt, 1884. Notice the conservative suit and Eton collar. This is a very rare Cassatt image of father and son.

Cassatt's Work

Cassatt's first works in France incorporate popular conventional Spanish and Italian themes. Cassatt by the mid-1870s began to show the influence inovative new artistic aproaches--Impresionism. Cassatt arranged a few showings of her work in a few mixed exhibitions in America. They were generally favourably received by American art critics, but here unconventional style was not without critics. The rejection of "Portrait of a Little Girl" (1878) for the American section of the 1878 Paris Exposition Universelle reportedly enraged Cassatt. [Barter] This was an important contribution to the acceptance of Impressionism in America. Cassatt evolved her own very personal style. While ifluenced by Degas and the other Impressionists, she did not just copy their styles. One very important influence of the Impressionists was Cassatt's focus on the the minutia of domestic life. Although Cassatt never married, she loved children. She doting on her nieces and nephews as well as the children of friends. This emotional attachment shows clearly in her work. The loving intimate relationship between mothers and their children are among her most memorable works. Her focus on children as well as her innovative images showing the lives of women have made her the most celebrated woman American artist. These intimate domestic scenes were a major change in the world of art because many important earlier artists had painted works showcasing social movements or actual historical events. "The Bath" (1891) is one of her most well-known works using the mother-child theme. Other important works were "Portrait of a Little Girl" (1878) and "Children on the Beach" (1886). We also see a portrait of Harris Wittenmore JR. (1898) entitled, 'Boy with Golden curls" The Whittemores were a priominent Connecticut family. Harris dather compiled an imoprtant collection of French impressionist art.


As much as we admire Cassatt's work, we have not given her great attention in HBC. This is primarily because she primarily focused on very young children in non descript clothing or infants being bathed. As a result, they often do not include depictions of period clothing in which we are primarily interested. There are, however, a few interesting images of older children in period clothes.

Eddie (c1870)

Mary returned to America as the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71)broke out in Europe . Se was determined to return as soon as possible. While in America she painted several portraits. One was of Lois Cassatt's first son Eddie. Lois was a greatniece. The painting is signed "Eddie/from/Aunt Mary". It was a very early work and her inexperience shows. It is, however, an interesting reference point for her later work. Casatt's biographer describes the painting, "Dressed in the neight of Lord Fauntleroy splendor in a dark-red velvet suit with white lace ruffles, sash, a velvet hat over long curls ..." [Hale, p. 48.] Of course the height of the Faintlery craze did not come until 10 years later when Mrs. Burnett published her book. But Cassatt's painting confirms that Amercan boys were wearing velvet sduits, lace ruffles, and long curls in the 1870s. Casatt's biographer appears to ass that because the by was dressed like this that he was opprerssed. She writes, "Eddie appears, doubtless was, deeply oppressed ...". Now for all we know, he was oppressed. We do not think, however, that bercause he wore a velvet sut with ruffles and long hair that this indicated that he was oppressed. This is a construct that modern writers give to 19th century clothing and hair styles that was not always actually the case.

Aleander and Robbie (1884)

Mary Cassatt in this portrait painted her brother Alexander and her favorite nephew Robert Kelso Cassatt, 1884-85 (figure 2). Notice the conservative suit and Eton collar. This is a very rare Cassatt image of father and son. Alexander was an important part of Mary's life. He often visited her in Paris. This was painted during one of those visits. Robbie was her favorite nerphew. He wears a rather severe kneepants suit with a gleaming white Eton collar.


Robbie was Mary's favorite nephew. He was the son of her older brother Alexander and named after their brother Robert also called Robbie that died as a boy while the family was in Germany. Mary's sister-in-law wrote to Mary and mentioned that her son wanted to have his curls cut so he could have short hair like the other boys. Her sister decided against it. Mary's mother (Robbie;s grandmother) wrote to Mary saying that she thought he should stay "pretty" clothes for another year. Mary Cassatt, who never married, was of course noted for her charming portraits of mothers and children. Her mother writes, "As to Robbie's curls, I should be on Mamma's side, I would want to keep him pretty a year longer, I wouldn't have the courage to cut them off--though I dare say he would like to be like Eddie and have short hair, as all little boys like to imitate their big brothers." [Hale, p. 76.] HBC believes that questions of hair and breaching were often matters of considerable discussion among 19th century families, both family discussions and letters. Unfortunately few of the oral discussions survived and biographers often do not count the issue of significant importance to include passages from letters. This letter, however, is a good example of the kind of family discussions which occurred. Robbie is pictured her as an older boy wearing short hair and an Eton collar.


One way that Degas did noticeably influence her was the effort to convey a sence of immediacy. Many of her paintings seem like unposed or informally posed snapshots. She attached great importance to gestures, another influence from Degas. She also derived from Degas and others a sense of immediate observation, with an emphasis on gestural significance. Many of Cassatt's early paintings had a almost lyrical quality using gentle, golden lighting. This had changed by the 1890s. Like several of the Impressionists, Cassatt was strongly affected by an exhibition of Japanese prints held in Paris in the early 1890s. She began to draw more definatively and she begn to use clearer, less filtered colors. She also developed a renewed interest in print making.

Final Years

Cassatt lived in France for the rest of her life.


Barter, Judith A. Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman".

Gerten-Jackson, Caro, Marie-Line Boy, and Mark Harden. "Mary Cassatt," Web Museum, Paris.

Hale, Nancy. Mary Cassatt: A Biography of the Great American Painter (Double Day: Garden City, N.Y., 1975), 333p.

Mowll Mathews, Nancy. Mary Cassatt: A Life.


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Created: June 21, 2002
Last updated: 5:58 PM 7/23/2023