How Mary Cassatt’s Brother Introduced French Impressionism to Americans

  • Mary Cassatt, Portrait of Alexander J. Cassatt, 1880. Courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

    Mary Cassatt, Portrait of Alexander J. Cassatt, 1880. Courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Today, Mary is undoubtedly the more famous Cassatt. The sole American artist to exhibit alongside the French Impressionists in Paris, she was mentored by Camille Pissarro and worked closely with Edgar Degas. Her pastel-hued domestic scenes now sell for millions at auction and hang in institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Musée d’Orsay.

But a century ago, her brother, Alexander, was the household name. As the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad—the country’s largest railroad company in the late 19th century—Alexander J. Cassatt’s reputation extended as far as the tracks that traversed the nation. In their hometown of Philadelphia, his success cast a long shadow over his artist sister’s accomplishments. A much-quoted local news item from 1898 stated that “Miss Mary Cassatt, sister of President Cassatt of the Pennsylvania Railroad, returned from Europe yesterday. She has been studying painting in France and owns the smallest Pekingese dog in the world.”

Mary, then 54 years old, had already been a working artist in Paris for more than two decades.  There, she’d achieved far more than the ownership of a petite pet. Yet it took her older brother, one of the most prominent American corporate figures at the time, to validate her artistic significance. This familial connection would provide an early endorsement of the Impressionists, one that was instrumental to the movement’s success across the Atlantic.

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, Claude Monet, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir in the spring of 1881. A few years later, his Impressionist collection would exceed 30 paintings and include works by Pissarro and Berthe Morisot. 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.

“Given his prominence in broader professional, commercial, and social circles—Newport, New York, Saratoga, the international horse racing, coaching, and yachting worlds—Alexander’s purchases and exhibition of Impressionist paintings set an example for a wide array of communities in the U.S. and internationally,” says Suzanne Lindsay, a professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania. “Dealers from Paris, London, and New York could all invoke his name when talking to the press or potential buyers.”

These days, Alexander’s name is mostly relegated to museum labels—either as a portrait sitter or a former owner of an artwork. The monuments to his wealth and stature are gone: The elegant first iteration of Penn Station that he commissioned was demolished in 1963, his country home was destroyed by fire, his Philadelphia townhouse was razed to make way for the Rittenhouse Hotel. The last public remnants of his prestige are in his affiliations with Mame, his little sister, whose fame eventually overshadowed his own.


—Karen Chernick