Though he preferred collecting horses to paintings, Alexander wanted to support Mary, whose headstrong enthusiasm for the Impressionists was contagious. She began advising him to purchase works by her Parisian colleagues in 1880, just six years after the fledgling art movement organized its first exhibition of the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, etc. (as the Impressionists were originally known). “Mary Cassatt got the whole family involved in the excitement of contemporary art,” says Nancy Mowll Mathews, senior curator emeritus at Williams College.
First, Mary cleverly exposed her equestrian-loving brother to jockey scenes by Degas. Convinced of their merit, Alexander ended up purchasing paintings by Degas,
in the spring of 1881. A few years later, his Impressionist collection would exceed 30 paintings and include works by Pissarro and
. Their prominent display in Alexander’s Philadelphia townhouse and suburban estate—both of which were often used for lavishly entertaining high-society guests—instantly conferred the Impressionists with an American pedigree of taste, class, and insider artistic knowledge.
Alexander’s collection was also one of the only ways to view Impressionist works in the U.S. at that time, when lengthy transatlantic travel was prohibitive. Similar works would not be commercially available in the U.S. until Parisian art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel opened a New York gallery in 1887.
Alexander’s railroad associates were among the first to follow his lead in art collecting. They made the connection between the Pennsylvania Railroad and Impressionism quite literal—train scenes by Monet were among the first contemporary works bought by Alexander’s colleagues Frank Thomson and John G. Johnson. “There’s an interesting link between their business interests and the artwork,” explains Jennifer Thompson, curator of European painting and sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
. “There’s a very tight-knit Pennsylvania Railroad group that’s buying the Impressionists, and that has to do with Alexander Cassatt.”
And his reach extended beyond the monied men who controlled the Pennsylvania Railroad. Alexander also loaned his Impressionist paintings to exhibitions that introduced the American public to the new movement. The first of these, a seminal 1886 exhibition of nearly 300 works arranged by dealer Durand-Ruel, included seven paintings from Alexander’s collection.