Arts & Culture
7:43 am
Thu January 23, 2014

NC Art Museum's New Treasure, 'Madame X'

I really love the story that's been in the news for a day or so about the painting, "Portrait of Madame X Dressed For the Matinee." A Winston-Salem woman, Charlotte Hanes, and some anonymous donors, gifted the painting to the NC Museum of Art. It's a major addition to the museum's collection.

The picture is lovely, of course. Mary Cassatt painted the work at what would become important time in her career. But what captures my imagination is not the significance of the painting to the art world, but what the subject is wearing.

We'll start at the top. What a great hat. If you think about the kinds of hats a woman today would wear to the theater, something like this is usually not on the list. And the buttoned up blouse, with the ruffles. So lovely.

And the gloves, dear me, the gloves.  I don't know about you, but it's been a very long time since I went anywhere with a pair of gloves and an understated clutch.

Changing Role of Women

John Coffey, the Museum’s deputy director for art and curator of American and modern art says that Mary Cassatt was able to use her paintbrushes and canvas to do something more than produce a pretty picture. He says that this image actually captures the changing role of women in the 19th century -- and the evolving role of women in modern society....and that she was able to do all of that by the precise way  she swirled her paint:

"In my opinion, it is not only the Museum’s most important 19th-century painting by a female artist—it is our finest 19th-century portrait.”

For example, though the sitter is conventionally posed, Cassatt painted her with the energy and vivacity of the new impressionist technique. Further, Cassatt gave careful, precise attention to the face but defined the dress and opulent cushions with cursory swirls of paint.

Here's a full view of the painting in case you haven't seen it yet - or you are looking for ideas for what a truly fashionable lady wears to a matinee.

Portrait of Madame X Dressed for the Matinée
Credit Mary Cassatt

The image will go on display at the North Carolina Museum of Art later this month.