Fassett, Cornelia (1831–1898)

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Fassett, Cornelia (1831–1898)

American portrait painter. Born Cornelia Adele Strong in Owasco, New York, on November 9, 1831; died in Washington, D.C., on January 4, 1898; daughter of Captain Walter Strong and Elizabeth (Gonsales) Strong; married Samuel Montague Fassett (an artist and photographer); children: seven.

Cornelia Fassett, one of the most successful portrait painters of the mid-19th century, is best known for her Electoral Commission in OpenSession, which hangs in the U.S. Capitol. She was born Cornelia Adele Strong in Owasco, New York, on November 9, 1831, the daughter of Captain Walter Strong and Elizabeth Gonsales Strong . She studied watercolor in New York City with the English painter J.B. Wandesforde and reportedly studied abroad for three years after her marriage in 1851, at age 20, to the artist and photographer Samuel Fassett.

In Chicago, to which the couple moved in 1855, she tended to her growing family (they would have seven children) and painted, while her husband ran a photographic studio. Her portraits, which included a number of prominent Chicago citizens, established her reputation, and in 1874 she was elected an associate member of the Chicago Academy of Design.

In 1875, the family moved to Washington, D.C., where Samuel took a job as a photographer to the Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department. In a studio located atop a music store on Pennsylvania Avenue, Fassett painted such luminaries as presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and James A. Garfield, and Vice President Henry Wilson. She was elected to the Washington Art Club and became part of the city's lively social scene.

In February 1877, Fassett was inspired to memorialize the historical meeting of the Electoral Commission, which convened in the Supreme Court chamber to settle disputed ballots in four states in the Hayes-Tilden presidential election. The large canvas depicting the prominent Washington figures who attended the hearing took two years to complete and includes more than 200 individual portraits both from life and from photographs taken by her husband. "Each face is so turned that the features can easily be studied," wrote Pearson's Magazine (1903), "and the likeness of nearly all are so faithful as to be a source of constant wonder and delight." Charlotte Rubinstein notes that although the painting might appear naive by modern-day standards it was then "a tour de force of realism, very much in tune with the nineteenth century predilection for 'casts of thousands.'" After the painting was completed in 1879, there was some controversy over whether the government should buy it. The work was eventually purchased in 1886 for $7,500 (some sources quote a purchase price as high as $15,000) and hung in the Senate wing of the Capitol.

Fassett continued to win acclaim for her individual portraits. Her 1878 portrait of New York historian Martha J.R. Lamb was described as capturing "the quintessence of upperclass American life…. The portrait of an energetic New York lady is like an illustration of an Edith Wharton novel." In her later years, Fassett concentrated on miniature painting. While rushing from one Washington party to get to another, the artist was stricken with a fatal heart attack and died at the age of 58.


McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1982.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts