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Not surprisingly, the public flocked to see the well-conceived Mary Cassatt exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, standing in line to buy calendars, posters, refrigerator magnets, and coffee cups adorned with her beloved images. Yet the exhibition curator, Judith Barter, intentionally downplayed the sentimental side of Cassatt, opting instead to show her evolution as a “modern” artist. Ninety key works, including paintings, pastels, drawings, and prints, highlighted Cassatt’s progress from a young artist studying in Europe to her acceptance as a member of the Parisian avant-garde. Loosely following this basic chronology, each of the seven galleries was organized around certain topics: Impressionist subjects, domestic interiors, the child, Cassatt as printmaker, her Chicago mural, and finally her cherished maternal paintings.
The first gallery contained works little known today that date from her study in Italy and Spain. Hardly student works, since several of them were exhibited at the Paris Salon, their importance for Cassatt is detailed in an illuminating catalogue essay by Andrew J. Walker titled “Mary Cassatt’s Modern Education: The United States, France, Italy and Spain, 1860–73.” In it he persuasively demonstrates how Cassatt’s study, particularly in Spain (as it had for Manet), provided the foundation for her later engagement with modern subject matter.
After Cassatt settled in Paris in the mid 1870s, there was a dramatic shift in her style and subjects that is beautifully documented in the paintings that fill the second gallery. Here are works done by Cassatt the Impressionist, paintings of women in public—at the theater, driving a carriage, and so on. Nearby in an adjacent gallery are more paintings and a selection of Cassatt’s early soft-ground etchings that illustrate modern woman’s domestic life. Amplifying these Impressionist themes are objects in free-standing glass vitrines—contemposrary fashion magazines, gloves, hats, and a silver tea service that can be found in adjacent paintings. Altogether the paintings, prints, and objects reveal the life of a modern woman. Over the past ten years, art historians, by drawing on a rich amalgam of studies dealing with household life, fashion, the world of women and children, women’s education, philanthropy, patronage, and the like, have opened up new scholarly resources for the appraisal and understanding of works by women artists. This new contextual matrix is the unstated basis for the title of the exhibition and catalogue: Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman (Modern Woman was the title Cassatt gave her 1893 mural for the World’s Columbian Exposition Woman’s Building).
While Barter does not define the term modern, given the amount of attention the word itself has received since T. J. Clark analyzed its meaning in relationship to the writings of Charles Baudelaire and the work of Édouard Manet, defining it for women artists becomes an interesting semantic challenge. For Baudelaire the modern artist was a flâneur, a dandy who strode freely through the urban landscape, attending the ballet and horseraces, dining in cafés. The question arises, then, what makes the flâneur’s life style more “modern” than the domestic life represented by Cassatt? It might even be said that given the enormous changes in women’s opportunities, particularly for women of her class, that her paintings are as illustrative of the modern moment as those done by her male counterparts.
Beyond these works devoted to woman’s domestic life, the next gallery, fittingly enough, is devoted to images of the child. Perhaps no one has painted children as winningly or unsentimentally as Cassatt. A return to the feminine world is found in the next gallery, where a full set of Cassatt’s famous suite of ten color prints done between 1890 and 1891 is installed. Contained in these images are illustrations of intimate moments in a woman’s life—bathing the baby, riding the tram, fixing one’s hair—which summarize Cassatt’s modern themes. Cassatt’s printmaking in the 1890s was inspired by the Japanese print, exhibitions of which had become quite common in Paris by the end of the century, and the gallery contains examples of the type of Japanese wood block prints that influenced Cassatt and her contemporaries.
Cassatt’s color prints also rank among her best and most well-known works. While the superiority of these prints has always been acknowledged, what is less well known is that they are post-Impressionist, i.e., they were done after the Impressionist moment had passed. They also influenced new directions in Cassatt’s paintings of the early 1890s, including her 1893 mural, Modern Woman. In fact the next gallery is devoted to the mural and related paintings including a half-scale, black-and-white photo placed high on the gallery wall to somewhat mimic its placement over a hundred years ago in the Woman’s Building. The mural, which is presumed lost, was not critically well received, and after the fair, Cassatt never referred to it again. Its connection to her career has thus been very problematic. Barter, however, in her catalogue essay, “Mary Cassatt: Themes, Sources, and the Modern Woman,” effectively links the mural and its allegorical illusions to the Garden of Eden and to young women’s ambition to pursue fame, with Cassatt’s responsiveness to symbolist ideas of the turn of the century. The exhibition ends by playing to the crowd, so to speak, with Cassatt’s most familiar paintings of maternal themes.
Complementing the exhibition is an exemplary catalogue that, with its various essays, chronology, bibliography, and reproductions, is now the definitive work on Cassatt. I also call it the revenge of the curators since its elegantly written and scholarly articles rescue Cassatt from the doldrums of academic art history and the untenable screeds of some radical feminist writers. Barter, in her essay, which also delineates the exhibition’s overriding philosophy, addresses with great tact some of the knotty theoretical issues that have been raised around Cassatt’s work over the past decade. For instance, in dealing with the theoretical construct of the “male gaze,” whereby men objectify women, Barter turns this notion on its head, stating, “the fashionable women Cassatt painted expected to be watched” (p. 50). Barter also makes some wonderful visual comparisons between Cassatt’s painting and contemporary magazine illustrations, Rococo painting, and Italian Renaissance sculpture.
In the succeeding essay, “Pas de deux: Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas,” George T. M. Shackelford neatly dispatches one of the most frequently asked questions about Cassatt: Did she and Degas have sex. As he states, “no artist was more important to Cassatt than Degas,” yet “nothing we know about these two individuals would lead us to” assume they had a romantic involvement. (p. 109)
Kevin Sharp in his essay, “How Mary Cassatt Became an American Artist,” makes some important observations on Cassatt’s French and American reputations. Her critical success during the Impressionist years has been well documented in such works as the catalogue for The New Painting, Impressionism, 1874–1886 (San Francisco: The Fine Arts Museums, 1986), yet not enough attention has been given to her career after the late 1880s, including her interest in symbolism. She continued to maintain strong ties with the Durand-Ruel Gallery, partly because she was able to introduce the gallery to important American collectors. Yet she did not reject an offer to place her work with Ambroise Vollard, who today is best known as Picasso’s dealer.
The task that Barter and her colleagues created for themselves was to embrace and exploit Cassatt’s popular appeal while at the same time providing substance and sustenance for the art-historical community. This they have achieved by expanding on and synthesizing the great amount of research done on Cassatt, women artists, and Impressionism over the past twenty years. Their work validates Cassatt as a hard-working and ambitious artist. They dispel the myth that she was less successful than her male counterparts because she was burdened by her family. At the time she exhibited with the Impressionists, her work was favorably received by critics. Her sister and later her parents provided a supportive emotional environment for her working life. Most of all, both the exhibition and the catalogue reinforce a vital aspect of Cassatt’s work that has been ignored, one that may be so obvious to viewers today that it has gone unnoted. Her accomplishment was the creation of an unsentimental, albeit genteel, very “modern” view of women and their lives. The exhibition makes this point implicitly; the catalogue makes it explicit, opening the way for future scholars further to map the work and life of Cassatt and other modern women artists.
Professor Emerita, Art Department, Lehman College and the Art History Program, Graduate Center, City University of New York