Mary Cassatt's breathtaking painting, Katharine Kelso Cassatt is an intimate and poignant rendering of the artist's niece as a young woman. By no means an ordinary portrait, Katharine Kelso Cassatt is a virtuoso work in the Impressionist style and a classic example of the intuitive approach to her sitters that is one of the hallmarks of Cassatt's celebrated career. For Cassatt, the involvement of the sitter is an integral part of the picture. Here, she brilliantly captures Katharine's spirit as she sits on the verge of womanhood.
The present work was originally dated circa 1905 and identified as a posthumous representation of the artist's mother, Katherine Kelso Johnston Cassatt, as a young girl. "A young woman in a white dotted silk evening dress sits in a chair looking to the left. Her hair and eyes are dark. Her right arm hangs over one arm of the chair, and the left rests on the other. Her dress has ruffles at the round neck, puffed, short sleeves, and a long sash. Behind her is a small table with a vase of flowers on it, and farther left a cretonne curtain." (A.D. Breeskin, Mary Cassatt, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Oils, Pastels, Watercolors, and Drawings, Washington, D.C., 1970, p. 179)
Members of the Cassatt family, however, have always believed that the work depicts Alexander and Lois Cassatt's oldest daughter Katharine Kelso Cassatt, namesake of her grandmother, and known at the time as "Sister." A photograph of her as a young woman supports the family's belief (Fig. 1). Suzanne G. Lindsay provided further proof to substantiate the family's claim in the form of a letter from Lois Cassatt dated 1888, written during the family's visit with the artist in France that year. Lois describes the sittings for a portrait, which may be the present work: "The very last sitting for the portrait is going to be today and Aleck thinks it is very good. I am thinking that if we had not been going away it would have dragged on indefinitely...Sister would not smile for her and it made no difference what we said she still wore the solemn expression you will see in the photo Rob took." (as quoted in S.G. Lindsay, Mary Cassatt and Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1985, p. 64)
Born July 30, 1871, Katharine's apparent age in the present work supports a date of 1888. Further, Sister's "solemn expression," as described by Lois, is reflected in the sitter's face. "Finally, both the degree of finish and the number of existing sketches suggest the effore this undertaking involved, perhaps reflecting Lois Cassatt's complaint that it seemed to draf on: a half-length oil sketch, three pencil sketches, and a drypoint are associated with the portrait." (Mary Cassatt and Philadelphia, p. 64)
Even from across the Atlantic, Cassatt always showered her nieces and nephews with love and attention. The oldest of her cousins, Katharine was certainly the object of a great deal of affection throughout her childhood. In 1885, "Cassatt had written to Katharine's mother: 'So Katharine is beginning to care for dress, we hear that she is growing very pretty, how time flies--I suppose she will soon be growing up--'" (N.M. Matthews, Mary Cassatt, New York, 1987, p. 102)
Katharine Kelso Cassatt demonstrates Cassatt's unrivaled skill in portraying the essence of her subjects. Here, she touchingly captures the awkwardness of a teenager. Indeed, there is a great deal of expressiveness in the subtleties; the positioning of her arms, the details of her costume and hint of awkward knees beneath the folds of her skirt, and the unsmiling face looking off to the left all suggest a fashionable young woman coming of age. She is elegantly dressed, yet seems a bit uncomfortable in her carriage. The precise modeling and "the intelligence of Cassatt's design makes these portraits immensely pleasing." (Mary Cassatt, p. 114)
Classic in the work of the Impressionists, Cassatt presents her viewers with a series of contradictions in her presentation of the real world. The sitter's gaze is fixed on an unknown object of activity, or perhaps her mind wanders in contemplation. The result is an informal and sentimental rendering of her subject. Stylistically related portraits such as Young Girl at a Window make similar use of the convention with equal success. "In some ways a contradiction of conventional portraiture, this sidelong approach fits in with Mary Cassatt's whole endeavor: to paint life as it was lived around her--and by her--and not as it posed to be painted for the occasion." (F. Getlein, Mary Cassatt Paintings and Prints, New York, 1980, p. 64)
Cassatt's works during this period reveal her celebrated style and technique, freed from the restraints of the Paris Salon and embracing the bold palette and lively brushwork of the Impressionists. Katharine Kelso Cassatt is a brilliant example of the principles of Impressionism applied with Cassatt's zest, creativity, and intelligence. The high degree of finish, dramatic color scheme, and active brushstroke reflect Cassatt's innate artistic ability. Through Cassatt's deft handling of the brush, Katharine's dress becomes voluminous, but weightless. Her rosy cheeks and red lips reflect her youthful health and beauty. This dual priority of likeness and artfulness illustrates why she was considered "one of the most intelligent interpreters of the new art outside the original circle." (Mary Cassatt, p. 37)
Throughout her career, Cassatt explored the subject of women and children with tenderness and poignancy. A sentimental rendering of her oldest niece, Katharine Kelso Cassatt is a superb example of Impressionism at its best and demonstrates all that is most revered in Cassatt's finest works.
This painting will be included in the Cassatt Committee's revision of Adelyn Dohme Breeskin's catalogue raisonné of the works of Mary Cassatt.