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 Cornelia Adele Strong Fassett  (1831 - 1898)



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Lived/Active: District Of Columbia/Illinois      Known for: portrait-notables, history, crowds genre and interior painting

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Cornelia Adle Strong is primarily known as Cornelia Adele Strong Fassett

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Cornelia Fassett achieved prominence with her major work, "The Electoral Commission in Open Session" (c. 1879), which hangs in the U.S. Capitol. Clara Erskine Clement wrote in 1904, "No picture in the capitol attracts more attention, and large numbers of people view it daily."

Cornelia Fassett was born in Owasco, Cayuga County, New York. She was the daughter of Captain Walter and Sarah Devoe Strong. At the age of twenty, she married Samuel Montague Fassett, an artist and photographer. She studied watercolor painting in New York City with Englishman J. B. Wandesforde. She spent three years after her marriage studying drawing and oil pointing with Castiglione, La Tour, and Matthieu, in Rome and Paris.

In 1855, the Fassetts moved to Chicago. During the next twenty years, Cornelia Fassett painted prominent Chicago citizens and had seven children while her husband ran a photographic studio. In 1874, she was elected an associate member of the Chicago Academy of Design.

In 1875, the Fassetts and their brood moved to Washington, D. C. Mr. Fassett suffered losses in his photographic studio during the Chicago fire, but soon secured a job as photographer to the supervising architect of the Treasury Department. The couple set up adjacent studios over a music store in a business building at 925 Pennsylvania Avenue. Cornelia Fassett painted such luminaries as Presidents Grant, Hayes, and Garfield, and Vice President Henry Wilson. Her portrait of Supreme Court Justice Waite was displayed at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. She was elected to the Washington Art Club, and her studio entertainments reportedly became an important part of the social life of Washington.

Fassett's imagination was seized by a historical event that she decided to memorialize in a large painting. When the Hayes-Tilden presidential election was declared a tie, it had to be referred to a fifteen-member electoral commission for final decision. Feelings ran high in the country, and the debate itself was a dramatically charged event. Although the government did not commission the painting, she obtained permission to pose the participants in the old Supreme Court chamber where the debate took place. Her large canvas, The Florida Case in Open Session Before the Electoral Commission, February 5, 1877, shows William M. Evarts making the opening argument in the chamber before a large and distinguished audience of Washington notables. Fassett painted more than two hundred individual portraits in the work over a period of several years, both from life and from portrait photographs taken by her husband.

While the work was in progress, the New York Arcadian reported:

"Her great work, the Electoral Commission, . . . . is slowly approaching completion. . . . The large number of people present are naturally . . . grouped. There are in the crowd ladies enough in bright colors to relieve the somberness of the black-coated men, and the effect of the whole picture is pleasing . . . aside from its great value as an historical work.

After the completion of the painting in 1879, there was considerable debate and controversy over whether the government should buy it. It was finally purchased in 1886 for $7,500 (the $15,000 price reported in several books of the day is inaccurate), and the painting was placed in the northeastern corner of the Senate wing of the U. S. Capitol.

In 1903, Pearson's Magazine described the painting as follows:

"As you face the picture, the portraits of two-hundred and fifty-eight men and women, who twenty-six years ago were part of the legislative, executive, judicial, social, and journalistic life of Washington, look straight at you as if they were still living and breathing things . . . Each face is so turned that the features can easily be studied, and the likeness of nearly all are so faithful as to be a source of constant wonder and delight.

The ambitious work an extraordinary achievement for a woman of that period appears a bit naïve today. A pastiche of 258 faces, all in sharp focus whether near or far, it gives somewhat the effect of a giant rogue's gallery. In 1877, it was a tour de force of realism, very much in tune with the nineteenth century predilection for "casts of thousands".

Cornelia Fassett continued to paint private citizens, as well as government leaders. Her portrait of the New York historian Martha J. Lamb (1878) in her Victorian study has been described as capturing "the quintessence of upper-class American life . . . . The portrait of an energetic New York lady is like an illustration of an Edith Wharton novel."

Cornelia Fassett continued a successful career, primarily painting miniatures in later years. She was hurrying from a Washington party to a later reception with one of her daughters when she was struck by a heart attack at age sixty-seven. She left her husband and seven children as survivors.

(Information of the biography above is based on writings from the book, "American Women Artists", by Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein)

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