I recently re-discovered a Mary Cassatt exhibition catalog that I’d forgotten that I had. It’s been on the shelf for years — I think that my parents got it for me when they went to the exhibit Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman at the Art Institute of Chicago years ago. Mary Cassatt was not an artist who appealed to me in my youth. Too traditionally domestic appearing for a somewhat rebellious teenager and 20-something. The title Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman still doesn’t grab me, but for some reason I picked up the catalog. Then I remembered a Cassatt print that I used to have up and that I still love and which, it turns out, was part of this same exhibit. (Isn’t it fascinating how our brains work?) Here’s the print:
So I started reading some of the catalog and browsing through the images, and it turns out that Mary Cassatt was not particularly enmeshed in the domestic world that she depicts. She was not married and she did not have children. (The children that she painted were her nieces, nephews, and the children of her friends.) She successfully navigated the male-dominated art world of Paris and the US in the late 19th – early 20th centuries, conquering stereotypes and prohibitions against women artists left and right. She was determined and motivated and was able to enter the Impressionists’ circle which would have been almost impossible for an American and a woman.
There’s so much to this image: the domestic sphere; the intimacy of bathing; the rise of the popularity of bathing, particularly among the upper classes in Paris in the 1890s; the influence of Japanese prints (and of Japanese culture in general), including the flatness and the patterns; the motif of the mirror, which Cassatt used repeatedly throughout her career. But mostly I just think it’s beautiful: the rich blues, the pattern on the rug, the stripes of the woman’s clothing, the way her upper body is so simply defined, and the kind of rough character of the print itself. ( I love how it looks like she colored outside the lines, which in my opinion is underrated in our society. I understand that teachers are working on kids’ motor skills by encouraging them to color within the lines, but some coloring outside the lines can be a beautiful thing, if you know what I mean.)
She created a whole series of prints inspired by the Japanese prints, including this one:
In these prints, in a stroke of genius, she was able to make the domestic sphere worldly by depicting a woman bathing, from this angle, with these patterns, in the manner of a Japanese print. And as I think about it, Mary Cassatt was a perfect, and unusual, example of this. She was a woman, welcomed into the world of the home and children as only a woman could be that time, and she was also living the life of a professional and well-respected artist. She could portray the domestic world with respect and empathy in a way that a male artist would have a harder time achieving.
It’s so easy to write off Mary Cassatt as I did, to forget that she was not making conventional art. To our 21st century eye, her art is nothing new. To artists, and to the public, in the late 19th century, she was breaking down barriers in the narrowly defined art-world, and living the life that she wanted to live despite societal expectations. AND she was putting the spin of a woman’s life onto male-dominated Impressionist art. For a woman to persevere as she did, it must have been her life. And when she felt like she was breaking out of conventions and working toward creating her own art, she must have let out a deep breath and felt like she was beginning to live.
If you want to read more, try these blog posts:
In 1877 Cassatt met Edgar Degas, and he invited her to exhibit with the Impressionists. She told her biographer about the encounter in 1913. “I accepted with joy. At last I could work with complete independence without concerning myself with the eventual judgement of a jury. I already knew who were my true masters. I admired Manet, Courbet and Degas. I hated conventional art. I began to live.”
From Pollock, Mary Cassatt, Chaucer Press, 2005.