Let’s Take a Look at Mary Cassatt’s Painting Child in a Straw Hat: A Tour of the West Wing of the National Gallery of Art

When I lived close enough to do so, I loved to go to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and although that museum has a vast collection, I rarely moved beyond the rooms that housed Impressionism.  The rooms might have moved around a bit since then, but at the time that I last visited the NGA, the Impressionists would have been located along a statue-lined hallway that was right of the entry to the West Wing. The Impressionists were housed in several large rooms on the left side of that hall. A map of those rooms would look something like what I show you below:

As you can see by the above map that I have created, one of my favorite Van Gogh self-portraits was in that area, and Renoir was in that area, and Cezanne was in that area, and Degas was in that area, but Mary Cassatt was also in that area, and for many, many years, Mary Cassatt has been one of my favorite artists.

Child in a Straw Hat has always been my favorite Mary Cassatt painting, and I am delighted to say that I visited that piece several times at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

Most people would love the pouty expression of Cassatt’s child in this painting, but because I love bravura and/or painterly paintings, I also love Cassatt’s brushwork in this piece.

Let’s take a closer look at the brushstrokes on the head and face of this painting.

Now, let’s look at the brushstrokes in the child’s hat.

In another post, I talk about John Singer Sargent’s brushstrokes, when he painted in oil. John Singer Sargent was born in 1856, and he died in 1925. Mary Cassatt was born in 1844, and she died in 1926. Child in a Straw Hat was painted in 1886.


BIOGRAPHY of Mary Cassatt

Known for her perceptive depictions of women and children, Mary Cassatt was one of the few American artists active in the nineteenth-century French avant-garde. Born to a prominent Pittsburgh family, she traveled extensively through Europe with her parents and siblings. Between 1860 and 1864 she attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. At the age of twenty-two Cassatt went abroad, studying old master paintings in European museums. In Paris, she studied with prominent academic painters and independently at the Louvre. She went back to the United States for a short period, then returned to Europe in 1871, spending her time painting and copying the old masters in museums in Italy, Spain, and Belgium.

In 1874 she settled permanently in Paris. Although she had several works accepted for exhibition by the tradition-bound French Salon, her artistic aims aligned her with the avant-garde painters of the time. In 1877 Edgar Degas invited her to join the progressive group of artists popularly known as the impressionists. She particularly admired the work of Degas, and a close working relationship developed between the two artists. They both came from similar upper-class backgrounds, and their friendship was based on common visual sensibilities, including an interest in bold compositional structure, the asymmetry and high vantage point of Japanese prints, and contemporary subject matter.

During her long residence in France, Cassatt sent paintings back to exhibitions in the United States–hers were among the first impressionist works seen in this country. By advising wealthy American patrons on acquisitions, she also played a crucial role in forming some of the most important collections of impressionist art in America.

[This is an excerpt from the interactive companion to the videodisc American Art from the National Gallery of Art.]