Ellen Mary in a White Coat
Mary Stevenson Cassatt (American, 1844–1926)
81.28 x 60.32 cm (32 x 23 3/4 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Suzanne and Terrence Murray Gallery (Gallery 226)
Mary Cassatt is especially admired for her domestic scenes—of women reading, knitting, taking tea, and caring for their children. Born in western Pennsylvania to a wealthy family, she trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and then traveled in Europe before settling in Paris in 1874. Encouraged by her friend and mentor Edgar Degas, she became a member of the Impressionist circle, exhibiting with them in 1879, 1880, 1881, and 1886—Cassatt was the only American to exhibit with this group. She lived for the rest of her life in France, initially in Paris and then in nearby Mesnil-Théribus, where she owned a château.
Ellen Mary, the second child of Cassatt’s youngest brother Gardner, was about two years old when the artist painted this portrait, the first of many that Cassatt would make throughout her niece’s childhood. Cassatt probably painted this likeness when her brother and his family were visiting her at Beaufresne, her château, in 1896.
Ellen Mary in a White Coat is a tour de force of compositional invention and psychological insight. Ellen Mary is encased in a luxurious, bulky hat and coat that become the key structural elements of the composition. The curved line formed by the fur trim of the coat and hat contrast with the rectangles of the yellow chair and background panels. Ellen Mary is pushed forward and fills the picture space, seeming at once immediate and monumental. Despite the fact that only Ellen Mary’s tiny face, hands, and summarily sketched feet are visible, Cassatt has managed to indicate the child’s personality and mood. Although the costume and setting that envelop her were designed as much to indicate her family’s wealth as to provide for her comfort, Ellen Mary is able to assert her individuality. Serious beyond her years, Ellen Mary seems to know that sitting for a portrait is important, although not much fun for a two-year-old.
Cassatt painted Ellen Mary in a White Coat when she was at the height of her powers. She had studied Spanish painting, especially Velázquez’s pictures of children of the royal Spanish family—like Ellen Mary, small children trapped in elaborate costumes. She was a friend of Edgar Degas and had seen firsthand his manipulation of space and his ability to use the background of a portrait [31.33] to comment on the sitter. In addition, the flat patterns in this painting reflect Cassatt’s interest in Japanese woodblock prints, which she had enthusiastically collected and studied. Having absorbed these various influences, she applied her own sensitive appreciation of childhood to create a perceptive and unsentimental portrait of her niece. Aunt and niece grew especially close, and when Cassatt died, she left Beaufresne to Ellen Mary.
This text was adapted from Carol Troyen and Janet L. Comey, Amerikakaigakodomo no sekai [Children in American art], exh. cat. (Nagoya, Japan: Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 2007).
Lower left: Mary Cassatt
1911, given by the artist to her niece (the sitter), Ellen Mary Cassatt (Mrs. Horace Binney Hare, b. 1894 - d. 1966), Pennsylvania; 1966, by inheritance to her son, Charles Hare; 2012, gift of Charles, Hope, and Binney Hare to the MFA. (Accession Date: April 25, 2012)
Gift of Charles, Hope, and Binney Hare in honor of Ellen Mary Cassatt