Young Woman Sewing in the Garden (1886) by Mary Cassatt
Interpretation of American Impressionist Genre Painting

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Young Woman Sewing
in the Garden (1886)
By Mary Cassatt.
Regarded as one of the
great genre paintings of
the Impressionist School.

Young Woman Sewing in the Garden (1886)


Analysis of Young Woman Sewing
Explanation of Other Impressionist Paintings


Name: Young Woman Sewing (Jeune fille au jardin) (1886)
Artist: Mary Cassat (1845-1926)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Genre painting
Movement: Impressionism
Location: Musee d'Orsay, Paris

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).


An important figure in American art, Mary Cassat was born into a wealthy Pittsburgh family (her father's 17th century ancestors were French) but spent much of her youth in Europe, before returning to America where she studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. But after the Franco-Prussion war, attracted by the art, the museums and the art schools of France, she went back to Europe to study under Jean-Leon Gerome at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where she settled in 1874. She also added to her education by copying the great masters, in Spain, and in the Louvre. Although initially drawn to academic art, she came under the influence of Degas (1834-1917) during the 1870s, who introduced her to the other Impressionists and acted as her mentor. The two shared a common love of Ukiyo-e woodblock prints and other forms of printmaking, like etching. Both also produced some outstanding pastel drawings. Many of Cassatt's works depict scenes and portraits drawn from the comfortable female-dominated world in which she moved. She participated at several of the Impressionist Exhibitions (1877-81) and 1886, and provided great assistance both to her fellow artists and her American friends by urging the latter to invest in Impressionist paintings. Cassatt was also instrumental in promoting the school of American Impressionism, of which she was an important pioneer.

NOTE: For the full story behind French Impressionism and the avant-garde group of painters who created it, see our 10-part series, beginning: Impressionism: Origins, Influences.

Analysis of Young Woman Sewing by Mary Cassatt

Influenced by Degas, Cassatt laid great stress on sharpness of drawing and the search for an original lay-out. Later she came a little under the influence of Renoir (1841-1919). Her favourite subject was maternity, which she illustrated in a quite unsentimental way; she saw it as an expression of life and health. "The child Jesus with his nurse," Degas said, speaking of her pictures. Compare this with works by the female French Impressionist Berthe Morisot (1841-95), such as The Cradle (1873, Musee d'Orsay).



Another favourite subject of Cassatt's was women sewing, either watching a child as they did so, or else alone. But it is not often that, as in this picture, the scene is an outdoor one. Most of her pictures are interiors. At any rate, Young Woman Sewing, also called Girl in the Garden, is a typical example of her portrayal of women and children in the privacy of their everyday lives. The paint is broadly laid on, without hesitation. The special study she made of Japanese prints, particularly in engravings, greatly helped her to attain that precision which she sought above all else.

The decorative background is given extra structure by the addition of a broad diagonal path which also imbues the painting with interest and depth. In addition its movement provides a clear contrast with the static but monumental figure of the young woman, in the foreground. The rapid, loose treatment of the skirt sets off the clear, firm outline of the face and bodice, which draws attention to Cassatt's emphasis on precise daughtsmanship.

The most important feature of the composition as a whole, is the way Cassatt creates a central intersection point in the picture, mid-way between the young woman's chin and her fingers. This point, corresponding with the pattern on her dress, lies at the intersection of the diagonal path with the angle of her forearms, and her downward look.

The painting was exhibited during the Impressionist group's last exhibition in 1886. It was purchased by the art collector Antonin Personnaz (1854-1936) who bequeathed it to the Louvre in 1937. It was moved to the Musee d'Orsay in 1986.

NOTE: For biographical information about other American Impressionists, see: William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), Childe Hassam (1859-1935), Theodore Robinson (1852-96), John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), John H Twachtman (1853-1902), and J. Alden Weir (1852-1919). See also the luminist painter George Innes (1825-94), and the tonalist painter Whistler (1834-1903).

Explanation of Other Impressionist Paintings

Portrait of Emile Zola (1868) by Manet.
Musee d'Orsay.

Portrait of Berthe Morisot (1872) by Manet.
Musee d'Orsay.

Portraits at the Bourse (1879) by Degas.
Musee d'Orsay.

Woman with a Coffee Pot (1890-5) by Cezanne.
Hermitage, St Petersburg.

Lady in Blue (c.1900) by Cezanne.
Hermitage, St Petersburg.

Young Italian Woman Leaning on her Elbow (1900) by Cezanne.
J. Paul Getty Museum.


• For analysis of other American Impressionist paintings, see: Homepage.

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