Arts Everyday Living: Mary Cassatt—The Mystery of A Young Woman in Black

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Can you solve the mystery of the Young Woman in Black, also known as Portrait of Madame J. by Mary Cassatt?


Mary Cassatt, Young Woman in Black (Portrait of Madame J.), 1883, oil on canvas, Collection of Maryland State Archives

Now hanging on the wall of the current Degas/Cassatt exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Madame J. is probably among the most elegant and graceful figures painted by Cassatt. Yet, some art historians have identified her as the artist’s sister-in-law, Eugenia or Jennie (could J. stand for her name?).

Jennie Carter married Mary’s younger brother Gardner in 1882.  The couple resided in Philadelphia, though they traveled often to Paris to visit Cassatt over the next decades. On one of these trips in 1888, the proud aunt was able to quickly capture Jennie with her first baby, called after his father.

Do you see a resemblance?



Mary Cassatt, Gardner Held by His Mother, c.1889, drpoint, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, New York, NY


However, Cassatt’s Portrait of Madame J. is the subject of at least 4 reviews by critics of the 1880 Impressionist show in Paris. For instance, Armand Silvestre in the publication La Vie Moderne of April 24, 1880 observes that the Portrait de Mme J….in a black dress, sitting on flowered cushions, is a piquant little piece,* while another writer describes the work as a depiction of an Englishwoman in black.*

But Cassatt did not know Jennie in 1880. Although Young Woman in Black (Portrait of Madame J.), now in the Maryland State Archives, is listed as being done in 1883, which would be a year after Jennie wed Gardner.

So what do you think? (Hope you aren’t too confused!)


The quotes above are from The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886 (catalogue of exhibition) by Charles S. Moffett and other art historians, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco, 1986.  Other sources for this blog are Mary Cassatt: A Life by Nancy Mowll Mathews, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1994 and Mary Cassatt: Reflections of Women’s Lives by Debra N. Mancoff, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, New York, 1998.

The above images are used solely for educational purposes.


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