The identity of “Madame X” is still debated. Achille Segard, Cassatt’s first biographer, described the sitter as a “sister-in-law of a friend of the artist.” Based on this vague reference, some scholars have suggested that the young woman is either Harriet Buchanan or a Miss Carter, sisters-in-law of the artist’s brothers. However, for now the woman remains “Madame X,” a name apparently bestowed by art historian Adelyn Breeskin in her 1970 catalogue raisonné. Whoever she is, the sitter is very much a woman of Cassatt’s social milieu: affluent, fashionable, and cheerfully self-assured. She is depicted in an elegant, high-necked dress with plumed chapeau appropriate for attending an afternoon performance at the Opera or theater. (Evening performances typically required more formal—and revealing—couture.) Why an afternoon performance? Here it is important to note that matinées were largely the province of women and in the 1870s a daring social innovation. Parisian women at the time risked scandal if they went out unescorted in the evening. However, they were permitted to attend matinées on their own. Unmarried and chafing at the restrictive social rules of the day, Mary Cassatt relished the opportunities to be her own person. Her portraits of women from the 1870s express a similar progressive sensibility.
The setting of the painting appears to be a luxuriously appointed salon or perhaps a loge at the opera or one of the fashionable theaters of Paris. The young woman, seated on a plush deep-gold cushion, engages our eyes with casual familiarity, her lips parted in a smile. She holds a pair of opera glasses—de rigeur for viewing both the performance and the glittering audience. “Madame X” may be seen as a projection of Cassatt: a thoroughly modern woman, enjoying the civilized pleasures of the City of Lights and on her own terms. Edgar Degas, who was Cassatt’s closest associate among the Impressionists and exerted a profound influence over Cassatt’s choice of subjects, was also at this time exploring the theme of women at the theater.
The early provenance of Madame X is unknown, though one may assume it was commissioned by the sitter and remained within the Cassatt family until it was acquired by Ambrose Vollard (1866-1939), a near-legendary art dealer in Paris and a great champion of Renoir, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Picasso, and other modern masters. In 1971 the painting was acquired by Mrs. Ralph P. Hanes Sr. of Winston-Salem who left it to her son R. Philip Hanes Jr. and his wife Charlotte, distinguished collectors of American art. For many years the painting was the crown jewel of the Hanes’s collection.
Portrait of Madame X Dressed for the Matinée is a spectacular addition to the Museum’s collection. It is our first major work by an American woman artist before 1945—the date of our Georgia O’Keeffe. That Madame X explicitly addresses the evolving role of women in modern society is equally important. Then, of course, we have no Impressionist portrait, French or American. In summary, the picture fills some major holes and bridges a number of yawning gaps in our collection.