French Impressionism was not just a style, an approach to brushwork, or a sensitivity to light. It was a new kind of content: a focus on the middle-class life of afternoons at the park, outings to the seashore, and a domestic... [more]
French Impressionism was not just a style, an approach to brushwork, or a sensitivity to light. It was a new kind of content: a focus on the middle-class life of afternoons at the park, outings to the seashore, and a domestic world of well-appointed interiors. This turn toward familial and private scenes opened the way for art to depict something never before depicted: the life of women. And Mary Cassatt took that opening.
Cassatt first encountered Impressionism when she moved to Paris in 1874. The headstrong daughter of a wealthy French-American family, she had traveled extensively in her youth and studied art in Philadelphia. Though the Impressionists were roundly dismissed by the critics of the day, she struck up a friendship with the painter Degas and pursued her art under his mentorship. Degas introduced her to Monet, Manet, Renoir, and Pissarro. When rich American friends came to visit, she would convince them to purchase the work of these renegade and neglected artists; some credit her with redirecting artistic tastes on her home continent.
Cassatt remained single but often shared her Paris home with her mother, sister, and other members of her family. Impressionism gave her license to paint these people going about their daily lives, having tea or reading a book in the garden. But it is the scenes from the intimate parts of the house, where women and children lived almost separate from men, that give a unique sensuality to her work. In paintings like "La Toilette" (1891) and "Mother and Child" (1901), Cassatt depicted the recesses of the house, where a mother might bathe, dress, or caress a naked child. In "The Bath" (1890-91), a woman washes herself at a basin, the curve of her back drawing the viewer into the intimacy of body and self.
Occasionally Cassatt painted children alone in their own world. "Little Girl in a Blue Armchair" is a perfect example of Cassat's use of expressive poses and gestures. In a plush drawing room, a little girl sprawls on an armchair, her clothes slightly askew, her look slightly bored. The diagonal drape of her limbs over the chair contrasts with the constraining cummerbund around her dress, suggesting the social conventions that will mold the girl later in life. The painting was rejected by the 1878 Paris Exposition Universelle.
Cassatt exhibited regularly with the Impressionists (she was the only American to
receive this honor) and did not let polite notions of art deter her from exploring the reality of women's and children's lives on canvas. In her constant efforts to ameliorate the living conditions of her fellow artists, she became, in the end, a revolutionary of sorts for women and art alike. Asked why she didn't return to America, she said, "After all, give me France. Women do not have to fight for recognition here if they do serious work." Her own serious work was her art, which records the texture and patterns of women's existence. [show less]