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collections > permanent collection > paintings >MARY CASSATT
Mary Cassatt
(American, 1844-1926)
The Somber One, 1872
Oil on canvas, 14 3/4” x 18”
Gift of the Frank and Margaret Sullivan Fund (74.007)


Best known for her intimate studies of women and children, Mary Cassatt did much to introduce Americans to Impressionism during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.  The Somber One, however, is an early work, dating to the artist’s pre-Impressionist years and her struggle to gain recognition as an academic painter in the art circles of Paris.  The portrait’s dark palette reflects the influence of Dutch and Spanish Baroque painting, which was then in vogue at the Royal Academy of Munich and considered progressive in Paris and other centers of officially sanctioned art.  The subject, while unknown, is possibly one of Cassatt’s friends or family.


Born in Allegheny City (now part of Pittsburgh), Cassatt was raised in a wealthy and genteel household.  A sojourn in Europe during her youth inspired her to pursue a career as a professional artist, and in 1861, she enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.  Traveling to France for further study in 1866, she found a place in the ateliers of such well-known academic painters as Jean-Leon Gerome, Charles Chaplin and Thomas Couture.  As a woman painter, Cassatt met with difficulties and prejudice while trying to compete in the official Salon exhibitions.  On the invitation of her friend, Edgar Degas, she began exhibiting with the Impressionists in 1879.  From then on, she championed the movement and strove to introduce it to the United States.  Wealthy friends and collectors followed her lead, and her efforts led to the gradual acceptance of Impressionism in America during the 1890s.  By this time, Cassatt had achieved recognition in France, but in the United States, her career began to prosper only after Impressionism had given way to Postimpressionism, Fauvism, and other increasingly “modern” movements.  Poor health and impaired vision forced Cassatt to abandon her art in the last decade of her life, but she remained active, devoting herself to advancing the cause of women’s suffrage.