The Reader, 1877

View all works from this time period.

Works mentioned in this section:
The Reader
A Woman in Black at the Opera
• Reading “Le Figaro”
• The Blue Room
•  Young Woman in a Loge Holding a Wide-open Fan
• Five O’clock Tea
• The Nurse
•  Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child
• Mrs. Cassatt Reading to Her Grandchildren
• Profile Portrait of Lydia Cassatt
• The Bath
• A Goodnight Hug
Lady at the Tea Table
Girl Arranging Her Hair


Frustrated by the politics and aesthetics of the Salon system, Cassatt began to look to the tonalist paintings of Whistler, bringing new light into her work, and creating a work in 1877 that signals her transition to Impressionism: The Reader.

At this point, she also began to sign her primary signature type for the rest of her career: Mary Cassatt.

In 1877, Cassatt settled permanently in France, and her parents and sister Lydia moved into a Paris apartment with her; she appears to have met Degas in this period as well.

In 1877 and 1878, Cassatt painted three pictures upon which her fame largely rests: A Woman in Black at the Opera, Reading “Le Figaro” and The Blue Room.

At this moment in her career, the hallmarks of Impressionism come together in her work: a light-infused palette, modern life subject matter, and expressive brushwork.

These works also contain echoes of various influences that continued to be important to her work, ranging from Correggio (the pose in The Blue Room) to Degas (also The Blue Room) to Manet (A Woman in Black at the Opera) and Whistler (Reading “Le Figaro”).

A Woman in Black at the Opera and Reading “Le Figaro” were exhibited in the U.S. in late 1878 and early 1879, leading at least one critic to identify Cassatt as an Impressionist in March 1879, even though she did not exhibit with the Impressionists in France until May 1879.

Cassatt’s pictures at her first exhibition with the Impressionists, in 1879, were generally well-received by critics. A number of these works, especially her first theater images, reflect her interest in Degas’s art, which affected her subject matter, compositional types, and experimental use of mediums (Young Woman in a Loge Holding a Wide-open Fan).

Critics at this moment also began to link her subject matter and loose paint handling with that of modern English artists such as John Everett Millais.

Cassatt’s works at the Impressionist exhibition of 1880 were less well-received and were also discussed in relation to Degas and modern English art; Five O’clock Tea was both praised and condemned.

Though Cassatt did not exhibit any images of mothers, children, or child care in the first two Impressionist exhibitions, she began treating this type of subject in the spring of 1878, when she created The Nurse, which is much in keeping with similar small-scale images of women with children in landscape settings exhibited by Degas, Morisot, and Monet in the same era.

In 1880, she painted her most significant early mother and child picture, Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child, which looks to Correggio and Whistler, while also incorporating a reference to Degas’s brothel prints, with their interest in the theme of washing.

At this same moment, also acting in close concert with Degas, Cassatt began experimenting with etching and aquatint, focusing on images of her family members reading and doing needlework and women paying social calls and attending the theater.

Cassatt’s contributions to the 1881 exhibition were among the most critically acclaimed works in the show. Critics continued to appreciate the “Englishness” of her painting, but also detected a return to the Italian “primitives” of Western art (Ghirlandaio, Botticelli) in the bright, opaque colors, flat surfaces, and absence of chiaroscuro in pictures such as Mrs. Cassatt Reading to Her Grandchildren.

Cassatt’s were also among the most “abstract” of the pictures on view (see Profile Portrait of Lydia Cassatt), and her interest in the decorative effects of pattern (see also A Goodnight Hug) prefigure not only her “Post-Impressionist” works such as The Bath, but also the concern with wallpaper and textile patterns of the Nabis, especially Édouard Vuillard.

Durand-Ruel bought a few of her works in 1881–82; he did not handle her work again until 1890.

Cassatt worked only sporadically in the period 1882–85 due to the death of her sister, other family health issues, and her preoccupation with obtaining a portrait of her sister-in-law that had been commissioned from Whistler. The works she finished in this period generally depicted her brother Alexander and his family and a new governess brought in to care for his children (possibly Mathilde’s cousin).

In 1883, Cassatt created the now beloved Lady at the Tea Table, which was refused by the sitter, who found it unflattering.

She returned to the Impressionist fold for the group’s final exhibition in 1886; her works were received less enthusiastically than they had been in 1881; as they would for most of her career, critics could not agree as to whether her work, and her facture in particular, was masculine or feminine, brutal or delicate.

In contrast to her earlier Impressionist exhibitions, which were comprised of works that had not yet been sold (save one), four of her seven contributions to the 1886 exhibition already belonged to collectors.

Degas so much admired one of her contributions, Girl Arranging Her Hair (which had been created by Cassatt to challenge his assertion that women know nothing of style), that he traded one of the pastels from his infamous “Bathers” pastels from the same exhibition for it.

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