Mary Cassatt’s 1880 portrait of Lydia Crocheting in the Garden at Marly features the artist’s ailing sister, Lydia Cassatt, wearing a large white bonnet and a blue day dress accented with a plaid print and white lace–a common dress style of the time.

About the Portrait

Lydia Crocheting in the Garden at Marly is a painting by Mary Cassatt, an American impressionist painter. Cassatt was born in Pittsburgh in May of 1844, but spent a large part of her life in France, which is where she died in June of 1926. This piece was painted in 1880, while Cassatt was 36 living in Marly-le-Roi in Paris (Oxford Art).  At this point in her career, Cassatt began to paint genre paintings of daily life, often times with the subject of her sister Lydia (Fig. 1), who lived with her in Paris while she was ill with Bright’s disease (Wikipedia).

This portrait of Lydia was painted in the summer of 1880, when the rest of her family joined Mary in Paris to help take care of Lydia as she suffered from her disease. This piece was particularly unique for Cassatt since she utilized the technique of painting en plein-air (out-of-doors), which is evident in the brightness seen especially in Lydia’s large bonnet (The Met). In fact, this painting is one of the first portraits Cassatt painted outdoors (Ives 120).

This particular work was featured in the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition in 1881 (Wikipedia). Degas invited Cassatt to show at these exhibitions starting in 1877, however she followed Degas’ example in 1882 when he refused to exhibit there any more (Oxford Art). Its reception has not been recorded, however it seems to be an acceptable painting for Cassatt, as it is appropriately a genre painting of everyday life and the impressionist style (especially when practiced by a woman) was gaining acceptance at the time.

Autumn, Portrait of Lydia Cassatt

Fig. 1 - Mary Cassatt (American, 1844- 1926). Autumn, Portrait of Lydia Cassatt, 1880. Oil on canvas; 93 × 65.1 cm (36 5/8 × 25 5/8 in). American Federation of Art. Source: Artsy

Mary Cassatt (American, 1844–1926). Lydia Crocheting in the Garden at Marly, 1880. Oil on canvas; 25 13/16 x 36 7/16 in. (65.6 x 92.6 cm). New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 65.184. Gift of Mrs. Gardner Cassatt, 1965. Source: The Met

About the Fashion

In this painting, Lydia is wearing a large white bonnet, along with a mostly blue dress with plaid and lace trim. Although Cassatt paints in a style in which makes it difficult to conclude on the exact details of the dress, the slimness of the dress’s skirt alludes to the fact that Lydia is wearing the in-style silhouette at the time, which was a long fitted bodice and an equally fitted skirt with a slight bustle in the back. Another noticeable element of Lydia’s dress is in the details on the fabric. On the hems of the sleeves and down the center front of the bodice, there is an applied plaid fabric, as well as lace on the sleeve hems. A quote from Godey’s Magazine describes how a similar decorative border element was added to an 1880 day dress:

“The demi-long skirt is bordered with two kiltings, and the front is crossed with two gathered scarfs, the lower one being embroidered with a deep border… The bodice has a border of the same embroidery each side of the front, and a similar piece is inserted in the centre of the back of the basque. The foundation of the embroidery is printed cashmere of Persian design, and silks of different hues are used for the feather and satin stitches.” (587)

Since the dress is a more casual style for the day time, one can presume it is made of a mixture of cotton and muslin.

Two examples of similar dresses can be seen in two different fashion plates from 1880. In the Journal des demoiselles, the woman on the left wears a very similar dress to Lydia’s with the plaid fabric and lace along the sleeves and on the bodice, along with a large bonnet and tie (Fig. 2). The next fashion place features a more formal version of Lydia’s gown, however it is another example of the intricate edge detail found on the gowns during 1880 (Fig. 3).

This style of dress can also be seen in the French dress from The Met’s collections, which features a plaid woven fabric that this seen throughout the dress (Fig. 4). In the April 1889 edition of Arthur’s Home Magazine, the author describes a fashionable bodice (the far right bodice in figure 5) similar to Lydia’s in the painting:

“The Coat is loose to the under-arm seam, and the vest fastens down the centre, the sloping extension fastening to the left side. The trimmings are of dark red beads, almost of garnet color.” (390)

As noted in Mary Cassatt: Paintings and Prints, the most apparent accessory in the painting is Lydia’s large white bonnet (Getlein 30), but unlike her dress, fewer fashionable equivalents can be found.  Large bonnets were worn in this period, but most often made of straw, as seen in Édouard Manet’s Madame Manet at Bellevue (Fig. 6), where Suzanne wears a similar silhouette of bonnet, also which features a large tie around the hat, blocking her face from the sun while out in the garden.  Lydia’s white bonnet seems to be made of even lighter-weight material and given her illness, it’s likely comfort was predominant over considerations of style.

The setting of the Marly-le-Roi private garden, where the Cassatt family was staying, creates a contrast of rich greens and purples from the plants against Lydia’s colorfully accented clothing. This contrast and the white bonnet draw the viewer’s eye directly toward Lydia, ultimately focusing on her clothing. Even though Lydia was suffering from a crippling disease, Cassatt tried to paint her in the best light, including showing how fashionable she was, also by highlighting the beauty of her face which is heightened by the brightness given off by her bonnet.

Journal des demoiselles

Fig. 2 - Artist unknown. Journal des demoiselles, 1880. Source: Pinterest

Revue de la mode

Fig. 3 - Artist unknown. Revue de la mode, 1880. Source: Pinterest


Fig. 4 - Designer unknown (French). Dress, 1882. Cotton. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003.338a, b. Isabel Shults Fund, 2003. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Arthur's Home Magazine

Fig. 5 - Artist unknown. Arthur's Home Magazine, April 1889. New York: Special Collections at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Source: Mackenzie Pieton

Madame Manet (Suzanne Leenhoff, 1830–1906) at Bellevue

Fig. 6 - Édouard Manet (French, 1832-1883). Madame Manet (Suzanne Leenhoff, 1830–1906) at Bellevue, 1880. Oil on canvas; 80.6 x 60.3 cm (31 3/4 x 23 3/4 in). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997.391.4. The Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Collection. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Diagram of referenced dress features.
Source: Author