Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) Head of a baby with his finger in his mouth (Portrait of George Fiske Hammond) (Executed in Boston in 1898)

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Lot 62
Mary Cassatt
Head of a baby with his finger in his mouth (Portrait of George Fiske Hammond)
Sold for £ 75,000 (US$ 97,556) inc. premium

Lot Details
Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)
Head of a baby with his finger in his mouth (Portrait of George Fiske Hammond)
stamped twice with the Mathilde X collection stamp (lower left and verso)
pastel on blue paper laid down on card
52.2 x 47cm (20 9/16 x 18 1/2in).
Executed in Boston in 1898


  • Provenance
    Mathilde Valet Collection, the artist's housekeeper, Château de Beaufresne, Le Mesnil-Théribus (bequeathed by the artist in 1927); her sale, Paris, Hôtel Drouot, 30 March 1931, lot 72.
    Galerie Jacques Dubourg, Paris, by 1961.
    Charles E. Slatkin Galleries, New York.
    Carole Slatkin Collection, New York (by descent from the above, by 1978).
    David Tunick Ltd., New York.
    Private collection, New York (acquired from the above in 2005).
    Acquired from the above by the present owner, circa 2015.

    Paris, Galerie Jacques Dubourg, 1961, no. 90.
    New York, Charles E. Slatkin Galleries, Drawings, Pastels, Watercolors, n. d. (1965 - 1967), no. 98 (titled 'Head of a child').
    Washington D.C., National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, Mary Cassatt, Pastels and Color Prints, 24 February - 30 April 1978, no. 24.

    A. Dohme Breeskin, Mary Cassatt: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Oils, Pastels, Watercolors and Drawings, Washington D.C., 1970, no. 320 (illustrated p.140; dated circa 1900).

    Throughout her career, Mary Cassatt explored the subject of children time and again with a talented sense of familiarity and tenderness. Head of a baby with his finger in his mouth (Portrait of George Fiske Hammond) is a charming portrait of a toddler, only one year old, depicted by the artist at the peak of her career.

    Cassatt executed the present work in Boston in 1898 during one of the last visits to her homeland. American by birth, she moved to Paris in 1865 where she took private drawing lessons and quickly gained the recognition of the jury of the Salon, at which she exhibited her works consistently from 1868 to 1876. In 1877 thanks to the acquaintance of Edgar Degas, an artist Cassatt highly admired, she began to move away from her academic training towards the more spontaneous Impressionist style. Her paintings started to accentuate the effects of light and atmosphere through more impulsive and fragmented brushstrokes, and displayed an interest in modern women in Parisian society as well as familial domestic scenes. She became the only American artist to join the Impressionist group in Paris, which at the time was formed by distinguished names such as Degas, Monet, Morisot and Renoir, among others.

    Degas had a significant influence on Cassatt's artistic development, introducing her to new techniques such as lithography and pastels. She greatly admired Degas' pastels, as stated in 1915: 'How well I remember nearly forty years ago seeing for the first time Degas's pastels in the window of a picture dealer in the Boulevard Haussman. I would go and flatten my nose against that window and absorb all I could of his art. It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it' (M. Cassatt, quoted in L. W. Havemeyer, Sixteen to Sixty, New York, 1961, p. 275).

    By the 1890s, pastel had become Cassatt's preferred medium, and indeed was the only art material she took with her on her trip to America at the end of the decade. Between January 1898 and April 1899, she travelled to Philadelphia, New York and Boston visiting friends and undertaking portrait commissions, resulting 'in some of the artist's most brilliant pastels' (A. D. Breeskin, Mary Cassatt: Pastel and Color Prints, Washington D. C., 1978, p. 15). Among them, the Hammond family commissioned three portraits of their young children. The present work portrays their youngest child George Fiske Hammond and is a study for the finished pastel of the same year, Portrait of Gardiner G. Hammond and George Fiske Hammond, depicting the toddler with his elder brother Gardiner, resting his arm on the baby's shoulder in an affectionate embrace.

    Cassatt remarked to Harris Whittemore in 1898, the year this work was executed, that pastel was 'the most satisfactory medium for [portraying] children' (M. Cassatt, quoted in J. Barter, Mary Cassatt, Modern Woman, exh. cat., Chicago, 1998, p. 221). Harriet K. Stratis proposes that 'it may have been the velvety and tactile qualities of medium that led her to associate its use with the depiction of youth. The spontaneity that pastel allowed was surely an advantage when drawing children who could or would not sit still for long periods of time' (Ibid, p. 221). Cassatt apparently set up a studio in the Hammond family house from which the parents were strictly forbidden, asking a nursemaid to read to the children and tell stories to keep them occupied.

    As Head of a baby with his finger in his mouth(Portrait of George Fiske Hammond) demonstrates, pastel allowed her to capture the intensity of light and tone in rapid, expressive strokes conveying a natural sense of liberty and immediacy. The present work is typical of Cassatt's preparatory sketches, which exclude any background detail to focus on the sitter's face: neither embellished clothing nor indication of where the scene takes place divert the attention of the spectator who is left to engage with the distant gaze of the toddler. Harriet K. Stratis observes: 'over the years that had intervened since Cassatt's early collaboration with Degas, two opposing tendencies emerged in her pastel technique. While she would always retain a high degree of finish in her sitters' faces, she abandoned this treatment in their garments and surroundings. Certainly, this attachment to physiognomic detail was driven in part by her desire as a portraitist to render an accurate likeness' (J. Barter, Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman, New York, 1998, pp. 217 - 19).

    Careful consideration is given to the child's expression and the detail and texture of his features, which Cassatt builds up with gentle strokes, demonstrating the vibrancy of her mature style. The artist chooses only a few pale colours such as delicate pinks for the skin, flashes of white heightening that brings luminosity to the composition and different shades of browns to define the contours, the hair and the eyes of the boy. Cassatt skillfully defines the child's expressive eyes, the delicately applied porcelain tones of the skin render it satiny and soft, and the charmingly awkward pose of the baby distractively sucking his finger conveys a sense of naturalness and tenderness, qualities for which Cassatt was greatly admired.

    Whilst the three finished pastels of the Hammond children remained in the family for many decades, the present study was found in Cassatt's studio at her death in 1926 and according to the artist's will, was gifted to her housekeeper Mathilde Valet.

Saleroom notices

  • Please note that this work will be included in the Cassatt Committee's revision of Adelyn Doehme Breeskin's catalogue raisonné of the works of Mary Cassatt.
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