The Cassatt Committee will include this painting in their revision of Adelyn Dohme Breeskin's catalogue raisonné of the works of Mary Cassatt.
Mary Cassatt is revered for her ability to express emotion, narrative and a personal intimacy in her portraiture, particularly in the private realm of women. In La femme au mouchoir she captures her elegantly dressed sitter in a moment of deep contemplation: the woman pulls her arms close to her body and gazes downward to suggest solitude and despondency, yet allows Cassatt to quickly capture this personal moment and share it with the public. The sitter grasps a white handkerchief that partly obscures her face, leaving the viewer to wonder if she may have been crying, simply has a cold or if it is a subliminal prop meant to suggest coyness, introversion or glumness. She is at once elegant and youthful, with a midnight blue tailored dress and a stylish rosebud-adorned bonnet and her flawless skin glows in hues of peach and pink. Nancy Mowll Mathews observes that Cassatt's "subjects [were] drawn from the world around [her] with an ironic eye, [and] displayed a fragile balance between the public and the private, discretion and indiscretion, beauty and ugliness. A rigid or uninformed viewer could easily be confused by the transient and shifting effects of this style and, with some justification, feel mocked by [this] sophisticated artist. However, Cassatt was intellectually nimble and prided herself on her own penetrating opinions on art and society. From her very first efforts to incorporate Impressionist devices into her work she was fascinated with the aesthetic power of a painting's successful balance of contradictory elements." (in Mary Cassatt, New York, 1987, p. 40).
After struggling for almost a decade for recognition in the established Paris Salon, Mary Cassatt eagerly accepted Edgar Degas's invitation to join him in exhibiting her work with the other members of the Impressionist group in 1877. While they have become known as Impressionists, in the late nineteenth century, they "preferred to be called 'Independents'" (N.M. Mathews, ibid, p. 37). The term "Independents" is significant as it implies a forceful and noble rejection of the starched Parisian art world in favor of purely autonomous conduct. In fact, "Reminiscing thirty-five years after the fact, Cassatt still had strong feeling about the decision; in 1912 she told her biographer, Achille Segard, 'I accepted with joy. I hated conventional art. I began to live.' Clearly, she recalled the years of trying to find her way in the labyrinth art world of the 1870s, juggling the demands of her conservative American milieu, official taste, and her own independence, as a dark period, and she considered it the turning point of her life when, at the age of thirty-three she was given the opportunity to paint and exhibit freely" (ibid., p. 37).
Cassatt's artistic output changed dramatically as soon as she made the bold shift to Impressionism. Her works took on a more daring character and she developed her own unique style, infusing her gift of expressing the narrative, particularly from the female point of view, while mastering the Impressionist style of painting. The rich and murky palette of La femme au mouchoir highlighted with cold white tones, and the vigorous and heavy brushstroke, demonstrate Cassatt's sophistication and individuality within this movement. Cassatt's unique ability to capture fleeting yet poignant moments of everyday life established her as one of the leading painters of her day, her legacy a major influence on other female artists. It has been said of Mary Cassatt that she is not only the greatest woman artist of the nineteenth century, but that she is also "worthy of consideration as the most significant American artist, male or female, of her generation" (A.S. Harris and L. Nochlin, Women Artists: 1550-1950, Los Angeles, 1976, p. 58).