Mary Cassatt’s The Boating Party shows important changes in art and culture near the end of the 19th century. The Boating Party depicts evolving cultural norms around women and sport, and the rise of womenswear separates. Through Cassatt’s strong graphic shapes, we can see how Impressionist painting evolved to become more experimental and geometric in the 1890s.

About the Artwork

Mary Cassatt was an American artist born in 1844. She studied painting in France and Italy, and eventually made Paris her permanent home in 1874. Cassatt was a member of the Impressionists and was close friends with Edgar Degas (Weinberg). She is known for frequently painting mothers and their children, and her works allow the viewer to see an intimate glimpse into women’s lives in the late Victorian era (Mowll Mathews).

The Boating Party was painted in Cassatt’s mature period, in which she implemented strong colors and bold, geometric compositions (Mowll Mathews). During the late 19th century, Japanese prints became popular in France and they clearly influenced Cassatt’s technique. She appropriated some of the stylings of ukiyo-e printmaking, such as flat color, dynamic cropping, and higher vantage points. These elements can be seen in Kitagawa’s Boating Party with Children (Fig. 1). Cassatt is known to have been exposed to ukiyo-e in both 1891 and 1893 (Jordan). Her painting The Child’s Bath (Fig. 2) employs the ukiyo-e aesthetics, which “epitomizes Mary Cassatt’s absorption of Japanese methods and her ability to translate them into her own mature style​” (National Gallery of Art).

The Boating Party was the centerpiece of Cassatt’s exhibition in New York in 1895 (National Gallery of Art). While critics approved of the softer, more traditional style of her earlier paintings, many disapproved of her works from the middle of her career (New York Times 4). In multiple reviews of the exhibition, the flat colors and relative sharpness of her work were described as unfeminine. On April 18, 1895, the New York Times described her paintings:

“These last are frequently hard, crude, and have a tendency towards the brutal. Inharmonious masses of uncomplimentary color are brought side by side and shock the eye. A rude strength, at times, out of keeping with the subject, is noticeable, and takes away in a measure from the charm of femininity.” (13)

According to the MFA Boston, images of figures while boating are a common motif in Impressionist genre painting. We can see another example of a mother and child being depicted while boating in this painting by Edmund Tarbell (Fig. 3). In comparison with Tarbell’s painting, we can see Cassatt’s ability to depict the lives of Victorian women with a strong sense of honesty. The mother in Cassatt’s painting has agency; she’s engaged in boating, and it appears as if she’s settling herself against the motion of the boat. As opposed to Tarbell, Cassatt paints the child with more movement. The infant in The Boating Party looks to be watching the water go by and attempting to wriggle out of their mother’s arms. Although Cassatt never had children of her own, her status as an upper-middle-class Victorian woman meant that she was highly familiar with more private moments between mothers and their children (Mowll Mathews).

Boating Party with Children Swimming

Fig. 1 - Kitagawa Utamaro (Japanese, 1754–1806). Boating Party with Children Swimming, late 18th century. Diptych of woodblock prints; ink and color on paper; (13 7/16 in x 17 5/8 in). New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, JP1684. H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Child's Bath

Fig. 2 - Mary Cassatt (American, 1844–1926). The Child's Bath, 1893. Oil on canvas; 100.3 × 66.1 cm (39 1/2 × 26 in). Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1910.2. Robert A. Waller Fund. Source: AIC

Mother and Child in a Boat

Fig. 3 - Edmund Tarbell (American, 1862–1938). Mother and Child in a Boat, 1892. Oil on canvas; 76.52 x 88.9 cm (30 1/8 x 35 in). Boston: Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 23.532. Bequest of David P. Kimball in memory of his wife Clara Bertram Kimball. Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Mary Cassatt (American, 1844–1926). The Boating Party, 1893/1894. Oil on Canvas; 90 x 117.3 cm (35 7/16 x 46 3/16 in.). Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1963.10.94.The artist [1844-1926] until at least 1918; sold 1 October 1929 to Chester Dale [1883-1962], New York; bequest 1963 to NGA.. Source: National Gallery of Art

About the Fashion

The clothing in The Boating Party is relatively simple. The mother in the center of the painting is wearing a suit, also referred to as a tailor-made. The suit is composed of a short jacket and a skirt of a matching wool fabric. The wool is a soft blue-grey with striking lines of coral pink plaid. The jacket has a narrow-notched lapel, and a small gigot effect in the sleeve cap. Underneath, she wears a blouse, called a shirtwaist. The blouse has a high mandarin collar, similar to the one seen in Figure 4 from the Met’s collection, but the painting doesn’t clearly show any specific detailing on the blouse. Atop her head is a small straw hat with an upturned brim, which has been decorated with green ribbon and yellow flowers.

In the arms of the mother is a young child wearing a reddish-pink dress with overall fullness and puffed sleeves. As infants did not wear overtly gendered clothing in this period, we cannot be sure of the child’s gender. Children below the age of three typically wore unfitted light-colored dresses, however they usually had more detail than the dress in the painting (Franklin). It is possible that Cassatt chose to eliminate embellishment to maintain simplicity. If the dress were to exist outside of the painting, it would likely look like the dress in figure 5 from the Met’s collection ca. 1890.

On the bottom right of The Boating Party, we can see a hired boatman. The deep blue of his suit offsets the brightness of the sail and anchors the composition. His suit consists of a cropped jacket and a matching pair of pants, along with a slightly more teal-toned shirt. The boatman is also wearing a navy cap. His suit would not be considered fashionable dress and is likely a uniform. A similar suit can be seen in Baixeras’ Boatmen of Barcelona (Fig. 6).

The suit worn by the mother shows an interesting development in womenswear in the late 19th century. In the late Victorian era, sporting became culturally acceptable for women, and so did the wearing of suits and separates that were associated with being active. There is a long tradition of women wearing riding habits created by male tailors as opposed to female dressmakers, dating back to the 17th century. The idea was that the engineering required to make sports clothing suitable for side-saddle horseback riding could only be done by a tailor (Taylor). As tailor-mades became popular for an increased variety of activities, they began to be incorporated into regular daywear (Franklin).

In the 1890s, tailor-mades like the one seen in The Boating Party became extremely popular for everyday clothing. In 1894, Harper’s Bazar writes:

“Tailor made gowns are more popular than ever for morning wear on the street, for traveling, or at church. To be in the best style, they must be strictly tailor-made, in such simple fashions as were described in the BAZAR earlier in the season and illustrated more recently.” (355)

In this column, Harper’s Bazar describes the popularity of these ensembles. While they were still worn for sport, by the year that The Boating Party was painted, tailor-mades were commonplace in the everyday life of fashionably dressed women. The suit referred to in the column shows similarities with the specific appearance of the one in the painting too. Harper’s Bazar continues:

“The short cutaway coat prevails, but is made in different ways, some having fullness in the back of the skirt, others being flat like a man’s coat, the fronts fastened by three buttons, or by one, as best suits the wearer’s figure, or else not button at all.

Some pretty grey suits with blueish tints are worn, but the darker Oxford grey, which is almost black is considered more stylish, and is very effective when lightened by a vest of pale blue” (355).

The short, unbuttoned jacket of the suit worn by the mother seems to have echoed the trends for 1894. While the pale blue-grey of her suit was pervasive, it does not seem like it was particularly fashion forward. A similarly colored suit is believed to have been worn by Queen Louise of Denmark (Fig. 7).

A tailor-made that was specifically intended for outdoor use was shown in La Mode illustrée in 1894 (Fig. 8). It is described as a:

“Fancy wool beach ensemble, for lawn tennis- jacket with a large white moiré collar. Underneath, a full pleated blouse, made with white silk mousseline, and gathered into a high belt of white moiré. Matching skirt (without embellishment), in fancy wool, for lawn tennis. Full gathered sleeves, with white moiré cuffs. Pale gold hat, turned up in the front, garnished with cornflowers and a large red ribbon bow.” (246; author’s translation)

Like the suit in The Boating Party, the illustrated tailor-made is worn with a high-necked shirtwaist blouse, and an upturned straw hat. Both of the suits are made from plaid wool, and the description of the fashion plate implies that a fashionable shirtwaist would have been made of silk. While we cannot see the detail of the mothers’ shirtwaist, this fashion plate also implies that it could have had pleats down the front. However, the jacket from The Boating Party has sleeves with a very narrow sleeve cap, which was not the most fashionable choice for the year it was created.

It is likely that the mother’s suit was from several years earlier. A suit from 1892 can be seen with a narrower version of the gigot sleeve as well (Fig. 9).

In The Boating Party, we can see both societal and artistic change that occurred in the 1890s. Cassatt’s painting shows interesting developments within the Impressionist movement through her use of space and color. Through the clothing represented in the piece, we can see the evolution of societal norms in the period.

Diagram of referenced dress features.
Source: Author


Fig. 4 - Maker unknown (American). Shirtwaist, ca. 1900. Cotton. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, C.I.57.22.15. Gift of Estate of Valerie Dreyfus, 1957. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art


Fig. 5 - Maker unknown (American). Dress, ca. 1890. Cotton. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.666. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Marion Jardine, 1941. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Boatmen of Barcelona

Fig. 6 - Dionisio Baixeras y Verdaguer (Spanish, 1862–1943). Boatmen of Barcelona, 1886. Oil on canvas; 149.9 x 210.8 cm (59 x 83 in). New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 87.4.7. Gift of George I. Seney, 1886. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Walking Suit

Fig. 7 - Amanda Frederiksen (Danish). Walking Suit, ca. 1890. Wool flannel. Copenhagen: National Museum of Denmark. Source: National Museum of Denmark

La Mode illustrée, no. 31

Fig. 8 - Artist unknown. La Mode illustrée, no. 31, July 1894. Shibuya: Bunka Gakuen University Library. Source: Bunka Gakuen University Library


Fig. 9 - Maker unknown (American). Suit, 1892. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, C.I.53.72.9a–c. Gift of Mrs. William R. Witherell, 1953. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art