Mary Cassatt’s portraits of her sister, Lydia


Mary Cassatt
bright's disease
art and medicine


In the 1880 portrait, Lydia crocheting in the Garden at Marly, I argue that Mary Cassatt visually recorded symptoms of the malady that ultimately consumed her sibling. When compared with earlier portraits of Lydia, there is evidence of startling weight loss and signs of insomnia. In this paper, I explore Cassatt’s images of her sister painted in the final years of Lydia’s life to identify potent, but overlooked signifiers of disease and death on her form. Taking care of her sister allowed Cassatt to develop a deeper intimacy with the vulnerable body and honed her eye to recognize corporeal traces of disease. Her educated gaze rendered Lydia’s skin almost translucent, revealing symptoms that are no longer subtle once brought to the surface. These images showcase the trauma of Cassatt’s caregiving experience and serve as a precursor to a remarkable shift in her subject, marking a turning point in her career when she began to paint pictures of children held by their caregivers. I draw upon archival sources such as the Cassatt family’s correspondence and papers to establish that her oeuvre serves as a repository of the trauma of her lived experience.
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Copyright (c) 2022 Lini Radhakrishnan


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