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Mary Cassatt: Impressions of the World Away from Men

By Arielle C. Frommer, Crimson Staff Writer

The year is 1877. The Parisian group of artists who call themselves the Impressionists are displaying their works in an exhibit known as the “Salon of Rejects.” One such “reject,” Mary Cassatt, stands out as being one of only a few women and the only American among them. It was Edgar Degas, a prominent Impressionist painter, who invited Cassatt to join the ranks of the most daring and novel painters of their time, a position which Cassatt eagerly accepted.

From a young age, Cassatt had always dared to be bold. She traveled all over Europe in her youth, believing that the best lessons could be learned through worldly experience and observation. At age fifteen, Cassatt convinced her parents to let her attend the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to pursue her professional aspirations. Soon becoming frustrated with the slow pace and condescending attitudes of her male teachers and peers, Cassatt began her own independent study of the Old Masters, eventually moving to Paris in 1866. There, she honed her skills by taking private lessons with renowned artists, copying the Old Masters’ works, and sketching at the Louvre.

Cassatt was eager to explore new territory through her painting technique and subject matter. While many of her works depict intimate and ordinary scenes of life, they uniquely center women and domesticity in a discipline where such subjects were frequently neglected by male artists unable and unwilling to access those spaces.

The Mandolin Player” was Cassatt’s first piece to be accepted to the Paris Salon — the world’s most prestigious exhibition at the time whose acceptance was the stamp of artistic approval. This work is a naturalistic and melancholy depiction of a young girl playing a stringed instrument, embodying the subdued and realistic style typical of the time. While this work predates Cassatt’s eventual induction into the ranks of the innovative Impressionists, the subject matter reflects her lifetime interest in domestic and feminine subjects that mainstream artists largely neglected.

Always the adventurer who sought out her own path, Cassatt’s experiments in the 1870s yielded, frustratingly, rejection after rejection from the Paris Salon despite her initial success. Her stagnating career was in part due to the stubbornly conventional tastes of the critics, who denounced Cassatt as too outspoken and headstrong about her own artistic choices. Misogyny played a role as well, and like many institutions at the time, Cassatt found herself unable to break barriers without resorting to currying personal favor with judges and friends connected to the Salon.

But Cassatt found a new path in the form of the Impressionists. A group of artists whose style defied an era or tradition, the Impressionists began displaying their own works in a series of pioneering exhibitions. Edgar Degas in particular saw promise in Cassatt’s works, and his invitation to join sparked a period of creativity in Cassatt’s career as she incorporated elements of his style and took inspiration from his penchant for focusing on a common subject to depict scenes of domestic womanhood.

"In the Loge" by Mary Cassatt (1878)
"In the Loge" by Mary Cassatt (1878) By Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Cassatt’s style was inspired by the new techniques championed by the Impressionists — attention to light and color, dappled brushstrokes, and a sense of motion evoking an “impression” of a scene that gave the movement its famed moniker. Her painting “In the Loge” features this Impressionist influence and specifically elements from Degas’s style, with blurred brushstrokes and muted pastels and brown tones that convey the gilded elegance of the theater through an unusual visual angle. The painting depicts a woman at the theater using her opera glasses to observe the show as a man watches her through his own binoculars. While women in public spaces were frequently depicted in Impressionism, it is unusual to have the woman shown as an active observer of art rather than just a passive spectacle for the viewer, even though the man essentially objectifies her in the work as well. Cassatt herself was an avid observer, which informed the kinds of subjects she painted — often women engaging in domestic activities that many male painters were not privy to. This painting itself is all about the act of looking, as we observe the woman looking on in a theater, a man gazing at her, and the viewer witnessing these acts of observation, directly engaged in the work.

The 1890s were Cassatt’s most prolific time, as she honed her technique and focused her art around a unifying central theme. While her style became more experimental — she explored print-making and took inspiration from Japanese artistic styles — her subject matter became increasingly single-minded as she painted a series of mother-and-child drawings and scenes of quiet domesticity.

"The Child's Bath" by Mary Cassatt (1893)
"The Child's Bath" by Mary Cassatt (1893) By Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

One such example is “The Child’s Bath” (1893), featuring a matronly woman clad in striped linens carefully cleaning the feet of a small child. This work continues to develop her focus on domestic subjects, sharing an intimate and tender moment between a mother (or nurse) and child depicted with elegantly decorative patterns and muted pastels.

While Cassatt frequently painted mothers, she herself never married, viewing marriage as utterly incompatible with a serious artistic career. The deeply institutionalized misogyny of the art world had relegated her to artist and observer, never engaging in the domestic scenes she painted but understanding their intrinsic importance and her role as the portrayer of such a world.

Cassatt is often known due to her proximity to the more famous Degas, but as much as she learned from his techniques, she deserves to be recognized singularly for the brilliance and originality of her works. We can all learn to be bolder from her adventurous life and artistic experimentation, and we can appreciate the beauty of womanhood for its own sake through her sensitive depictions of the domestic sphere, which make her a stand-out figure within a radical group of artists.

— Arielle C. Frommer’s column "Portrait of a Female Artist" explores the lives, art, and stories of the most celebrated and empowered female artists of the ages,

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