Autumn, Portrait of Lydia Cassatt (1880) by Mary Cassatt
Chloë Ashby reflects on an autumnal artwork for November
(specially commissioned by Miranda Mills for Seasons of Story)
In this tender portrait of her sister, Lydia, Mary Cassatt captures everything I love about autumn, starting with its high-key palette. Behind her is a tangle of greenery with dashes of ochre and russet red, while the grass in front is barely visible beneath a golden-brown muddle. Just looking at it, I can hear the crunch of fallen leaves beneath my feet, crinkled and crisp, and feel the way they collapse into tiny pieces when I crouch down and rub them between my fingers. With the turn of the season the temperature is dropping, but Cassatt creates an illusion of warmth with blazing colours.
It really is still warm enough to sit outside if you’re wearing a coat, as Lydia is on a bottle-green wooden bench – and what a coat she’s wrapped in. A woollen patchwork quilt of yellows, oranges and reds, not dissimilar to that muddle of leaves, with fringed cuffs and a collar that gently nudges up against her auburn hair. A black bonnet frames her fresh
porcelain face, its ribbons tied up in a big floppy bow around her neck, scarf-like. Her dainty hands keep cosy in a pair of gloves. Look closely and you’ll see a mustard-yellow walking stick slipped between forefinger and thumb, lying diagonally across her lap.
The older sister of the great Pittsburgh-born painter and printmaker, who made waves in the US and in France, was unwell at the time of painting in 1880 and died of Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment, two years later at the age of forty-five. She left behind no letters or artworks of her own, but she does appear again and again as the beloved subject of Cassatt’s briskly
worked canvases. Elsewhere, she’s pretty in pink, a froth of lace and white gloves, lifting a cup of tea towards her lips, or leaning on a plush green sofa against a pearly backdrop reading the newspaper.
After completing a fine art degree in Pennsylvania, and travelling around Europe studying the Old Masters, Cassatt settled in Paris in June 1874 and soon began showing at the Salon. Three years later her parents and Lydia joined her, and that same year Edgar Degas invited her to join a group of plucky young artists with a radical approach to picture-making. The only American in their midst, and one of a small handful of women, Cassatt exhibited at four of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, and over the following few years she honed her practice with a renewed focus on capturing life’s surfaces.
And the emotions bubbling away beneath them? It’s hard to tell what Lydia is thinking as she sits on the bench, but there’s something steely about her fixed gaze and pressed-together lips. Her strong jaw becomes stronger still when viewed against that black bow, and there’s a faint highlight on her cheekbone. Beneath her bonnet you can just about make out the spoon-ish curve of her ear.
Look again at that wonderful coat, and you’ll see it teeters on transparent – either that, or stitched among the yellows, oranges and reds are threads that match the bottle-green of the bench. Painted with free and feathered strokes, it’s a restless whirl of colour, full of movement and depth. Knowing that Lydia’s health was waning at the time, and that she died two years later, it’s tempting to read the portrait as a symbol of life’s impermanence – like the leaves of the trees, our heroine is beginning to fade. But like all of Cassatt’s portraits of her, it’s also a vivid and dynamic ode to sisterly love and devotion.
Chloë Ashby is an author and arts critic who has written for The Times, TLS, Guardian, frieze and others. She is the author of Colours of Art: The Story of Art in 80 Palettes. Her first novel, Wet Paint, was published in 2022, and her second novel, Second Self, followed in 2023. She lives in London.
Photo of Chloë Ashby © Sophie Davidson
Plan a trip to your local art gallery (or browse the online art collection of a favourite one) and find a painting that you feel evokes the month of November. Take your time in studying the painting - you may like to sketch a copy, or make some notes about the work in your notebook. Look up the artist if unknown to you; does anything surprise you about their life?
Throughout the months ahead, Chloë Ashby will be sharing some of her favourite artworks that reflect each season, building up a virtual art collection for Seasons of Story readers to look at and appreciate.