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Sesquicentennial Snapshots: Meet Mrs. Vassar

Along with Vassar College, the Art Center is celebrating the sesquicentennial anniversary of our founding. In this weekly feature, we will look back on the rich 150-year history of the collection. Today’s post comes from Nicole M. Roylance, Coordinator of Public Education and Information.

Unknown Artist, Catherine Valentine (Mrs. Matthew) Vassar as a Young Woman, 1820-1830, oil on canvas, x.164.

Little is known about Catherine Valentine Vassar, Matthew Vassar’s wife of fifty years. Mr. Vassar himself only mentions her twice in his diary. Her portrait, which was a pendant to the portrait of her husband discussed last week, presents the young wife in a fine black dress with a ruffled lace collar and an embroidered shawl. Her outfit befits her social status and reveals Mrs. Vassar may have had a moderate interest in fashion. The background landscape, unlike Mr. Vassar’s portrait which includes a view of his brewery, cannot be identified. It has been suggested it may be a landing place on the Hudson River near her childhood home in Fishkill, but the scene is too generic to be certain.

Mrs. Vassar holds nothing in her gracefully clasped hands. There are no books, no sewing projects, and no evidence of what her interests may have been. We know that she often remained home when her husband travelled. The portrait gives us no insight into what she may have done with her ample leisure time. Unfortunately, Mrs. Vassar passed away in 1863 “after a lingering illness which she bore with great meekness and fortitude” so she never saw Vassar College completed. We are left to wonder about this woman and what she thought of her husband’s mission to found a female college.

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