3 (Breeskin 11)
Portrait of Mrs. Currey; Sketch of Mr. Cassatt
Alternate title(s): Mrs. Currey---Mary Cassatt's Maid. Mrs. Currey---The Artist's Housekeeper. Portrait of Mrs. Currey. Sketch of Mrs. Currey; Sketch of Mr. Cassatt
Oil on canvas
32 1/4 x 27 in. (81.92 x 68.58 cm)
Private collection

provenance / ownership history
From the artist
to Mrs. Currey, the sitter
to her son Dr. Albert Currey, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
to James E. Lewis, Baltimore, Maryland, 1943
to Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York, by 1966
to W. Myron Owen, New Bedford, Massachusetts, 1967
by descent in family
to Sotheby's, New York, June 6, 1997, #58, ill.
to Gary Hendershott, Little Rock, Arkansas [through Bruce Gimelson, Garrison, New York?]
Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Zicherman, by 1999
to private collection, through Adelson Galleries, New York, 2002

exhibition history
1966--67 Hirschl & Adler NY: #7, ill., as Mrs. Currey---Mary Cassatt's Maid
1967--68 Hirschl & Adler NY: #89, ill., as Mrs. Currey---The Artist's Housekeeper
1970 National Gallery DC: #1, ill., as Portrait of Mrs. Currey; Sketch of Mr. Cassatt, lent by W. Myron Owen
1999--2000 Baltimore Museum: #6, ill., as Portrait of Mrs. Currey; Sketch of Mr. Cassatt, lent by collection Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Zicherman

published references
Hale, N. 1975: pp. xxiii--xxiv, 47--48, as "portrait of Mrs. Currey"
Love 1980: pl. 9, ill., as Portrait of Mrs. Currey
Mathews 1984: p. 73, ill., as Portrait of Mrs. Currey; Sketch of Mr. Cassatt; p. 75n3, as "unfinished portrait of the Cassatts' servant"; letter: MC to Emily Sartain, June 7 [1871], p. 74, as "a study of our mulatto servant girl"
Mathews 1987: p. 20, ill., as Portrait of Mrs. Currey
Berry-Hill 1988: p. 114; p. 115, ill., as Sketch of Mrs. Currey; Sketch of Mr. Cassatt
Dillon 1990: pp. 26, 198, as "servant girl"
Effeny 1991: p. 9, as Portrait of Mrs. Currey
Wiser 1991: p. 38, as "mulatto servant"


Cassatt created Portrait of Mrs. Currey; Sketch of Mr. Cassatt while living in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, a small suburb near Altoona. She returned home from Europe late in the summer of 1870 to avoid the Franco-Prussian War, and she remained in the U.S. until early December 1871. In a letter to her friend Emily Sartain, she explained her activities:

June 7, [1871]

I am working by fits & starts at fathers portrait but it advances slowly he drops asleep while sitting. I commenced a study of our mulatto servant girl but just as I had the mask painted in she gave warning. I was amused at her finding that I had not made her look like a white person.[1]

As the summer progressed, Cassatt began to fear that she would be unable to continue working abroad, for her parents did not offer to fund another transatlantic journey. On July 10 she wrote, "I have given up my studio & torn up my father's portrait, & have not touched a brush for six weeks nor ever will again until I see some prospect of getting back to Europe."[2]

Though Cassatt was undoubtedly disappointed at the loss of her model when her maid gave notice, the resulting unfinished sketch provides insight into her working methods, which remained relatively unchanged throughout her career. The broad outlines of the composition were marked with a few loose strokes, and details of the head are suggested with washes of thinned oil paint. Cassatt generally brought the face to a fairly high degree of completion before filling in the remainder of the canvas, as she did here with the woman's features. A comparison with the only two works known to precede this painting—The Young Bride, 1868, and The Mandolin Player—reveals the degree to which her technique had improved by 1871, for the woman's face in Portrait of Mrs. Currey; Sketch of Mr. Cassatt is far more volumetric and expressive.

As Andrew Walker points out, Cassatt did not portray her female model in Portrait of Mrs. Currey; Sketch of Mr. Cassatt in everyday clothes, but in a more exotic mode, perhaps in keeping with the lessons of the prominent Orientalist painter Jean-LĂ©on GĂ©rĂ´me, with whom she had studied for a short period in 1866.[3] In fact, the woman's headdress resembles that worn by one of the Italian women in Two Girls Throwing Flowers during Carnival, and her naked shoulders hint that the artist already might have been emulating a Roman portrait bust, as she would in the 1872 Early Portrait.

As for the male figure visible in Portrait of Mrs. Currey; Sketch of Mr. Cassatt, the circumstances of its appearance on this canvas and its relation to the information recorded in Cassatt's letters from the summer of 1871 are somewhat more difficult to untangle. Because the head of the woman is clearly painted over the image of Mr. Cassatt, this sketch of the artist's father must have predated the woman's depiction and represents the artist's first known effort to portray Robert Simpson Cassatt. In the June 7 letter, Cassatt discusses actively working on her father's portrait, but implies that she is now unable to finish the "servant girl" study because the model has left the family's employ. Therefore, the portrait of her father she mentions in this letter represents a second attempt at his image; she had already abandoned her first effort by turning it over and painting the "servant girl" upon it, and now has to put aside the "servant girl" picture itself. Then, on July 10, she asserts that she has "torn up my father's portrait." Yet, a completed portrait of her father does exist: Portrait of Miss Cassatt's Father (Robert Simpson Cassatt).

Would Cassatt actually have destroyed a canvas (which would have been difficult to tear, in any case), especially at a time when she hoped to save money to finance her return to Europe? Or was she merely exaggerating in her July 10 letter, as Walker suggests?[4] We know that she did reuse supports at this time from the very evidence of Portrait of Mrs. Currey; Sketch of Mr. Cassatt. Was she making reference to an otherwise unrecorded drawing of her father, which she more readily would have been able to tear apart? Does the Portrait of Miss Cassatt's Father (Robert Simpson Cassatt) represent her third known attempt to depict her father, or is it one and the same as the supposedly "destroyed" canvas? Without additional evidence, it is impossible to determine the answers to these questions, but one of the latter scenarios seems most likely: either she eventually completed the version she had claimed to destroy, or she did indeed destroy that version and started anew with the work now known as Portrait of Miss Cassatt's Father (Robert Simpson Cassatt).

James E. Lewis, an early owner of Portrait of Mrs. Currey; Sketch of Mr. Cassatt, wrote to Breeskin in 1965 to explain how the picture had come into his possession. In 1942–43, during his first year of study at the Philadelphia College of Art, Lewis lived with a retired dentist, Dr. Albert Currey, and his wife. Searching for old frames in their attic, Lewis discovered this painting. He was informed by Mrs. Currey that her husband's mother had worked for Cassatt's parents and that this painting had been done by the Cassatts' daughter Mary. The Curreys gave Lewis the painting as a gift in 1943. Lewis went on to become a renowned sculptor, archaeologist, and artist historian. The museum at Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore, was named after Lewis in honor of his many years as its director.


[1] MC to Emily Sartain, Hollidaysburg, [Pa.], June 7, [1871], in Cassatt and Her Circle: Selected Letters, ed. Nancy Mowll Mathews (New York: Abbeville Press, 1984), p. 74.

[2] MC to Emily Sartain, Hollidaysburg, [Pa.], July 10, [1871], in Mathews 1984, p. 75.

[3] Andrew J. Walker, "Mary Cassatt’s Modern Education," in Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman, ed. Judith A. Barter (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago/Harry N. Abrams, 1999), pp. 23–24.

[4] In Walker's view (Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman, pp. 23–24), "Cassatt's frustration may have made her prone to exaggeration: she did not actually tear up her father's portrait but rather worked over it. Dissatisfied with her efforts, she inverted the canvas and began a composition of a bare-shouldered black woman wearing a white handkerchief" (p. 23). That the artist exaggerated in her letters seems quite possible. However, chronology does not support the hypothesis that the supposedly "destroyed" portrait and Portrait of Mrs. Currey; Sketch of Mr. Cassatt are one and the same. On June 7, Cassatt wrote that she was still working on her father's portrait and that the painting of the sitter now known as "Mrs. Currey" had come to a halt because the model had given warning, but she did not announce that she had "torn up" her father's portrait until July 10. The image of Robert Simpson Cassatt visible on Portrait of Mrs. Currey; Sketch of Mr. Cassatt was, therefore, already defunct by June 7, and the artist was clearly working on another version of his portrait by that date. If she was merely exaggerating regarding the destruction of her father's portrait in the July 10 letter, then it seems more likely that Portrait of Miss Cassatt's Father (Robert Simpson Cassatt) represents the supposedly but not actually "destroyed" painting.

Portrait of Mrs. Currey; Sketch of Mr. Cassatt, inverted and cropped to isolate the image of Robert Simpson Cassatt at the bottom of the canvas.

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