Girl in a Bonnet Tied with a Large Pink Bow was originally purchased by one of Mary Cassatt’s most important patrons—James Stillman. A successful American financier, Stillman met Cassatt in the spring of 1906 in Paris, where he would fully retire three years later. Cassatt acted as a guide and art advisor for the businessman, and their close friendship led to his acquisition of twenty-four of Cassatt’s paintings and pastels between 1908 and 1914, including The Caress and Girl Seated in a Chair (both, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). This dedicated patronage inspired Cassatt to be more productive than she had been for several years. “Most importantly he was an American collector living and buying her work in Paris. This was the first time she did not have to consider her career as American or as French, or to distinguish between her homeland and the place she called home.” (K. Sharp, “How Mary Cassatt Became an American Artist” in Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman, Chicago, Illinois, 1998, p. 164) Stillman was also essential in ensuring the legacy of Cassatt in America. “Important though Stillman was to Cassatt in life, it was in death that he made the greatest contribution to her career, helping to insure that she would be better known to posterity in the United States…While some of Stillman’s collection was eventually auctioned, he bequeathed much of it, including half of his Cassatt holdings, to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York…A provision of the bequest permitted the Metropolitan to distribute a portion of the Cassatts to other museums in the United States…public museums in Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Worcester benefited from Stillman’s generosity and his devotion to Cassatt.” (“How Mary Cassatt Became an American Artist,” pp. 166-67)
Remaining in the Stillman family collection since its original purchase, Girl in a Bonnet Tied with a Large Pink Bow epitomizes the series of Cassatt's mature career concentrating on children, utilizing extravagant fashion to both literally and allegorically highlight the aspect of a young girl growing into her own self. As Nancy Mowll Mathews writes, “Of all Cassatt’s works, these images of children have the greatest popular appeal. They combine a number of winning qualities of young girls—soft, satiny skin, ‘pretty’ features, guileless expressions, charmingly awkward poses, and the frilliness of their clothes. Any surfeit of sweetness is counteracted by the masterly handling of every aspect.” (Mary Cassatt, New York, 1987, p. 127) Indeed, Cassatt’s skillful execution in Girl in a Bonnet Tied with a Large Pink Bow, coupled with her intimate perception of her subject, demonstrates her position as not only one of the most famous female Impressionists, but "worthy of consideration as the most significant American artist, male or female, of her generation." (A.S. Harris, L. Nochlin, Women Artists: 1550-1950, Los Angeles, California, 1976, p. 58)
Born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, Cassatt moved with her family at the age of five to Philadelphia, the city she would consider her American home. For most of the 1850s, the family lived abroad, chiefly in France and Germany, exposing the young Cassatt to her first taste of European art and culture. In 1861, she enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and quickly proved to be a promising student. Eager to return to Europe, she set sail for France in 1866 at the age of 22 and was granted quick acceptance into Parisian art circles. Bolstered by her first public success at the Salon of 1868, she decided to remain and pursue her career abroad, settling in Paris in 1875. As she developed a more progressive, painterly technique, her work captured the eye of Edgar Degas, who invited her to exhibit with the Impressionists. "I accepted with joy," she wrote, "At last I was able to work with an absolute independence without thinking about the opinion of a jury. Already I knew who were my true masters! I admired Manet, Courbet and Degas. I hated conventional art. I began to live." (as quoted in M.R. Witzling, Mary Cassatt: A Private World, New York, 1991, p. 11)
Cassatt's compositions became increasingly reflective of the tenets of Impressionism as she emphasized the effects of light and atmosphere, spontaneous and broken brushstrokes, a brighter palette and a focus on contemporary everyday life in her art. In particular, she focused on painting women indulging in leisure activities, like shopping and the theater, or interacting with their children. As seen in Cassatt’s depictions of women, “What made Impressionists like Degas, Manet, Morisot, and Renoir so avant-garde among other nineteenth-century artists was their willingness to blur the lines between the public and the personal, to transcend genres and conventions…As we look at these intimate portraits, Baudelaire’s admonition…seems apt: ‘However we may love general beauty, as it is expressed by classical poets and artists, we are no less wrong to neglect particular beauty, the beauty of circumstance and the sketch of manners.’ It is that ‘particular beauty’—intensely alive and incredibly present—that animates these Impressionist portraits even today.” (J. De Young, “Fashion and Intimate Portraits” in Impressionism, Fashion, & Modernity, exhibition catalogue, Chicago, Illinois, 2012, p. 123)
This balance between portraiture and genre painting, particular beauty and general beauty, is very much evident in the works Cassatt executed after the purchase of her chateau in Mesnil-Théribus. In this village fifty miles north-west of Paris, the artist employed local children as models, rather than painting commissioned portraits or likenesses of her own family or friends. Yet, Cassatt’s works of this period, including Girl in a Bonnet Tied with a Large Pink Bow, maintain an intimacy and level of facial detail that suggest an element of portraiture within the composed painting. In the present work, Cassatt delicately describes the child’s soulful eyes and carefully collected disposition. The salmon color of the bow and hat trim reflects and enhances the pink undertones of her skin, which Cassatt builds-up with short delicate strokes to capture its creamy and luminescent texture. Looking off to her side instead of at the viewer, she positions her hands in front of her, conveying a demeanor of distanced quietude, and even boredom, which seems to be not only a classic adolescent feeling but also a very individual personality.
Absolutely essential to this multi-faceted portrayal is the interaction of the subject with her fashionable clothing. A wealthy woman, Cassatt was well versed in the leisure activities and social scene of Paris, including the exclusive boutiques for the most chic attire. Certainly the most dramatic fashion statement in Girl in a Bonnet Tied with a Large Pink Bow is the flamboyant hat formed from expressive diagonal brushstrokes radiating from the child’s head at different angles and lengths. The viewer’s eye is continually drawn back and forth between the dueling foci of the girl’s face and the enormous pink bow tie of her bonnet. Perhaps inspired by a new fashion, from about 1900, the majority of Cassatt’s paintings of children included a large, elaborate hat surrounding the girl’s small face. Mara R. Witzling reflects, “Cassatt often framed the faces of adult sitters with prominent headpieces, and she herself is known to have modeled for several of Degas’ millinery scenes. Hats, with their bows, flowers, and streamers, are suggestive of the trappings of femininity. Visually, they add to the formal interest of Cassatt’s work, as frames and foils for the heads they surround. They also must have provided her young sitters with a captivating diversion, the opportunity to play dress-up with the artist’s collection of exotic props.” (Mary Cassatt: A Private World, p. 75)
As demonstrated by Girl in a Bonnet Tied with a Large Pink Bow, Cassatt combined a French Impressionist sensibility with a unique aptitude for capturing the private lives of female subjects to create some of the most beautiful and psychologically captivating portraits of the turn of the twentieth century.