Key Ideas about this Work of Art
- Mary Cassatt was one of only three female artists who were part of the impressionism art movement. She was the only American accepted into the group of French impressionist painters.
- This painting portrays a woman dressed up for an afternoon at the theater. In the 1870s women in Paris could attend the theater without a man (but only in the afternoon).
- The identity of the woman in this portrait is unknown. The artist did not give the painting its current title. An art historian named the subject of this painting “Madame X” in 1970.
- Cassatt often portrayed self-confident, modern women in her paintings.
Mary Cassatt was one of only three female painters of the impressionism art movement. Art critic Gustave Geffroy referred to Cassatt, Marie Bracquemond, and Berthe Morisot as “les trois grandes dames” (the three great ladies) of impressionism. Cassatt was the only American artist in the group of French painters known as the impressionists. French artist Edgar Degas invited her to join the group of independent artists in 1877. He was her friend and mentor, and he encouraged her to improve her painting techniques and explore new subject matter. Cassatt’s early works focused mostly on the subjects of her family, the theater, and the opera.
The identity of the woman portrayed in Portrait of Madame X Dressed for the Matinée is unknown. Cassatt did not give the painting this title. The name “Madame X” was given to the subject of this painting by art historian Adelyn Breeskin in 1970. Scholars believe that the woman in this painting may have been the sister-in-law of one of Cassatt’s brothers or someone she knew from her social circle.
Madame X is depicted wearing an elegant, high-necked dress with a feathered hat. This type of clothing would have been appropriate for an afternoon at the opera or the theater. In the 1870s women in Paris could attend the theater unescorted by a man, but only in the afternoon. Women risked public ridicule if they went out alone in the evening.
Cassatt resisted the strict social rules of her time by becoming an artist and choosing not to get married and have children. Her portraits of women from the 1870s show her progressive views. Madame X may be seen as a reflection of the artist: a modern woman enjoying the civilized pleasures of Paris on her own terms.
Resources for Teachers:
- Read an article about female artists in 19th-century France.
- Read the artist’s biography.
- Review a lesson plan for ideas on how to incorporate portraiture and identity into learning activities.
Resources for Students: