Arts Everyday Living: World of Mary Cassatt–The Heart of a Child Through Impressionist Eyes

Mary Cassatt, Child in a Straw Hat, c. 1886, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


Title: Child with a Straw Hat

Artist: American Impressionist Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)

THE ULTIMATE CASSATT: Today Mary Cassatt is recognized as one of the master portraitists of children, whether a tiny infant just becoming aware of the world around him to the chubby toddler taking her first steps to the two sisters reading together with their mother. The core  of her work is honesty, the ability to recreate the reality of childhood without sentimentality or coyness or that nostalgia that sometimes clouds our memories of the past.

For instance, how many of us felt in our early years the kind of  frustration and even anger of  the Child in the Straw Hat above? Or is Cassatt capturing a moment of sadness, perhaps despair?  Or a combination of these emotions? The artist perhaps remembering one of her own experiences growing up. A realization that she would not always be able to succeed and that life is full of challenges as well as obstacles that can sometimes cause unhappiness.

AMERICAN IN PARIS: Mary Cassatt, although born and raised in Pennsylvania, spent most of her artistic career in Paris, She is famous as a member of the Impressionists, mainly adopting their style and philosophy of art. Invited by Edgar Degas, she participated in four of their eight exhibitions held from 1874-1886.  Like them, her goal was to paint what they termed as “modern life.”  In Cassatt’s case, beginning with scenes at the theater, then later focusing on children and maternal themes. She also adopted the vibrant palette, brilliant light, and thick brushstroke of the Impressionists.

FOREVER UNKNOWN: Similar to Renoir’s A Girl with a Watering Can (see: February 27, 2023), also at the National Gallery of Art, the identity of Child with a Straw Hat remains a mystery. Although it has been suggested by some art historians, that she might have lived in one of the urban neighborhoods near Cassatt’s residence in Paris and was the daughter of working class parents. 

THE POWER OF SIMPLICITY: The children, mothers,  and other family members in Cassatt’s portraits are generally attired in clothing of various colors and patterns, often reflecting their affluent and upper middle class status. Their hair, too, is clean and carefully, at time stylishly, combed

However, the youngster in Child with a Straw Hat is wearing a plain dress  of basic gray and white standing against a neutral background, her locks unkept, stray strands moving in different directions. Only the sizable hat, balanced precariously on her petite head, might be the product of a fashionable store in contrast to the rest of her outfit.  

Did the artist loan it to her? Perhaps explaining the unforgettable look that  draws us immediately into the painting—the mouth, eyes, and even nose arranged so expressively. Is she on the verge of tears? Her complexion reddening, an indication of the coming outburst? Or will she resist, remaining perhaps at attention, her hands dutifully crossed, waiting for this modeling session to end so she can play again.

GOOGLING CASSATT: Would you like to meet other children that Mary Cassatt once knew and painted?

Helene de Septeuil, 1889, pastel, William Benton Museum of Art (University of Connecticut), Storrs, Connecticut

The Child’s Bath, 1893, oil, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois

Ellen Mary Cassatt in a White Coat, 1896, oil, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, Massachusetts

Young Mother Sewing, 1900, oil, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York

Mother Combing Her Child’s Hair, c. 1901, pastel, Brooklyn Museum, New York, New York

Mother and Sara Admiring the Baby, 1901, oil, Private Collection

Simone in a White Bonnet, 1901, pastel, McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas




In the public domain, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The National Gallery of Art does not endorse or approve use of the above image or any of the material on this website. Nor has the National Gallery of Art participated in any projects utilizing the said image.





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