On Seeing: Mary Cassatt & The Emerging Modern Woman

Mary Cassatt, Lydia Seated at an Embroidery Frame, 1880.

The artistic representation of women demonstrated by the painting and graphic work of Mary Cassatt, during the late Impressionist period of the nineteenth century, provides an example of the, “emerging modern woman,” depicted in realistic compositions, with feminine content, and an independent context.  While we may take these ideals for granted in this, our twenty-first century, they were critical to women in Cassatt’s late Victorian decades, and indeed, made way for the times in which we now live. These values in composition, content, and context which often define the characterization of themes about women in Cassatt’s work, is a departure from the artistic representations of women prior to that art historical period, as women of the late nineteenth century began to assert themselves in ways that transformed their roles in culture and society.

Cassatt’s own life reflects the extraordinary changes that a woman might enjoy in the later part of the nineteenth century. She was the third child born to a socially elite family of five children, living in Philadelphia in 1844.  Both her father, a banker, and her mother, received upper class educations.  Both parents were of French ancestry, and it was to France that they took their family while their son, Robert, was ill with tuberculosis.  Cassatt, 7 years of age at the time, was enrolled in school and began her own unusually privileged education, reinforced by her study of both French and German culture and language.

At 22, she returned to Europe to study art, after attending the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where Cassatt was mostly frustrated with the opportunities there.  Cassatt was anxious to study and copy from the great masters of European art, and once her mother made certain that she was safely housed in Paris with friends, Cassatt set about to visit the Louvre and make notes of the techniques and styles of artists, whom she admired.  Her own studies continued formally, as well, but it was her self-education that most influenced the direction of her talent.  Her strong independence and confidence, together with her advanced intelligence, made for an education in art that was as unique as her work.

Mary Cassatt, Lydia Seated on a Terrace, Crocheting, 1882.

In the catalogue raisonné of the graphic works by Mary Cassatt, Adelyn Dohme Breeskin writes that, upon seeing her painting in the Paris Salon of 1874, Edgar Degas remarked, “Here is someone who feels as I do.”  And she did.  The technique that Mary Cassatt employed in her artistic work was very similar to that of Degas and to that of the other Impressionist painters as well.  By 1877 she was invited to exhibit with the Impressionist group that included Manet, Courbet, Degas, Renoir, Cezanne, and Monet – all of whom she became well acquainted over time.  Always an outsider, owing to her American birth and lifestyle, Cassatt nonetheless became noted for her art as well as her personality.

Cassatt produced much artistic work that may not have challenged the conventional roles of women so much as it challenged the depictions of women in conventional roles.  In her hands, the subject of the woman became alive with the light and color of a new kind of imagery.  They were ordinary women who were beautiful in a new kind of feminine independence that was realistic.  Women enjoying leisure time together, women at work caring for children, women at work with fiber arts, women engaging in reading for information or for education or for pleasure, and the absence of the male subject in her artwork, gave women a singular focus in the Salons of Paris that formerly exhibited images of women that were produced mostly by men. Cassatt’s work replaced these images that typified women as subjects without dimension in ways that forever altered how women were viewed by both artists and audiences.

Mary Cassatt, Young Mother Sewing, 1900.

One of the first ways in which Cassatt’s work illustrates the emerging modern woman of the late nineteenth century is in her realistic compositions.  The composition of an artistic work is defined by that work as a whole.  It includes its formal elements and its subject.  Cassatt introduced a brilliant realism to her compositions that defied viewers to turn away from the subject of a woman in all the possibilities of her existence.  The women in Cassatt’s compositions are entirely natural in the details of their appearance that includes expressing themselves.  They are tired, happy, bored, or intent.  Their faces, bodies, clothing, and their environments all capture the subject of the woman in a manner that allows viewers to participate as voyeurs in the private and realistic moments that belong to women.

The subjects of Cassatt’s compositions are not idealized in their appearance and could even be interpreted as somewhat flawed.  Her 1890 painting titled, Young Mother Sewing, is a composition that captures a woman intent on her handwork as her fingers delicately touch the fabric she holds.  She is seated in front of a window wearing an apron and her expression is one of deep concentration.  Across her lap a young child leans, holding her chin in her hand and looking somewhat impatient.  The woman’s hair is loose across her brow and Cassatt’s use of light to illuminate her face and neck reveals that she is entirely focused on her hard work.  She is a real woman working in a real home and, moreover, she is as lovely as she is industrious.  

Mary Cassatt, Portrait of Lydia Cassatt, the Artist’s Sister, 1878.

Cassatt’s 1878 painting titled, Lydia, is a portrait of her sister reclining on a chair while reading.  Her gaze is fixed toward the pages of the book in her hand and her expression is one of relaxed attentiveness.  She is not sitting in a rigid upright position that implies that she is bound in a restricting corset, but rather, she is at ease and wholly embraced by the furniture upon which she sits.  She is also dressed in the casual attire of a woman at home in a relaxed environment that does not require any formality, when unobserved.  Her privacy is invaded once again by the viewer, who is now a voyeur.  Cassatt invites her audience to observe a woman who is caught unaware, and in a natural state of being that is realistic, rather than idealized.  This reoccurring theme in Cassatt’s work speaks to her colleagues in art who also depict more realistic images of women, but in Cassatt’s perspective she invades the private world of women, apart from men.

These examples of the realistic composition in Cassatt’s painting bring the subjects to the foreground where Cassatt’s technique emphasizes women in their natural state of being, which also transforms them from simple objects into complex human beings.  Antonia Cunningham in her work titled, Essential Impressionists, writes that “There is refined detail in the light of the veil being sewn, the flowers in a vase, the handles on the chest of drawers, and the tendrils of hair escaping at the woman’s neck.  The colors are light and bright.  Sunlight floods the scene, the skin of the child and mother glow in the light, and Cassatt’s ability to create texture knows no bounds.”  Indeed, as in, Young Mother Sewing, a new light is cast on the emerging modern woman of the late nineteenth century and it finds her as a many faceted human being, caught in a singular facet of her life.

Mary Cassatt, Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child, 1880.

The second influence in Cassatt’s work that challenges former depictions of women is in the feminine content as it is defined by the impressionist ways in which her subjects are portrayed in the traditional roles they assume.  Impressionist painters sought to capture their subjects in realistic ways that were illuminated by a wash of light, color, and form that broke from the Neo-Classical standards of the time.  Mothers and their children were the subjects that most often captured the attention of Cassatt’s imagination and the feminine content found most often in her compositions was illustrated in the role of motherhood.  Cassatt’s mothers were busy, unassuming, and once again, caught unaware.  These subjects are not posed for the artist, but rather, they are found in a natural state of being with their children, which is entirely feminine.

Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child, an 1880 oil on canvas painting, captures the subject of a mother leaning intently over her young toddler, who shows signs of much needed sleep.  A mother holds her child by the waist as she leans back into her mother’s embrace and rubs a tired arm across her cheek.  Her legs are sprawled and reveal chubby flesh that is about to be washed.  Her mother has her hand in a basin of water and holds a washcloth that is about to descend upon her child’s exposed skin.  This intimate scene of motherhood caught in a routine moment at the end of the day is wholly nurturing in its content.  Everything in the postures of the two figures in the composition is soft, gentle, and relaxed.  It is a tender moment of intimacy between mother and child, and Cassatt invites her audience to watch and observe the tenderness of the femininity of the mother that is both raw and pure.

Mary Cassatt, Under the Horse Chestnut Tree, 1896

The emerging modern woman of the 1890’s is “hands on” in the care of her children and Cassatt’s paintings of these subjects consistently portray the feminine ideal in the role of the mother.  As Stewart Buettner points out in his article “Images of Modern Motherhood in the Art of Morisot, Cassatt, Modersohn-Becker, Kollwotz” from Women’s Art Journal, “Men conducted the family’s business, financial, and political affairs outside the home; women supervised the children, guarded the family’s religious and moral values, and provided comfort and tranquility for their husbands in a well run household.”  Cassatt’s feminine content in her paintings repeatedly highlights the mother’s gentleness, meekness, but she also manages to introduce the authority that highlights the maternal tasks set before them. 

Cassatt’s feminine content in her compositions is found again, as in her engraving titled, Under the Horse Chestnut Tree.  Here, as she often does, Cassatt invites her viewers to become voyeurs as they watch over the shoulder of a young mother sitting with her child.  In this image, the mother is not sitting upright, stiff in a chair, as if posing for a portrait.  Rather, she is sitting on the ground, her arms raised as she holds her nude toddler, who stands on her lap.  We see the mother’s profile which is delicate, expressing happiness in her child, and intent on her communication.  The child looks down into the eyes of its mother and both subjects are blissfully unaware that Cassatt’s audience intrudes upon their private moment.  The intimacy of the pair is tangible in the exchange of feeling they exhibit.  This image is of the angelic feminine form of the mother who watches over the protection and nurture of the future generation in her hands.  

Mary Cassatt, The Loge, 1878-80.

Finally, Mary Cassatt demonstrates the essence of the emerging modern woman of the 1890’s as independent, in the context of her work.  In this, she continually captures women and children as subjects apart from men, but she also captures women together with other women as subjects apart from men.  In these images Cassatt’s women are completely independent and enjoying themselves and one another without the imposition of a masculine presence.  Cassatt maintains realistic compositions and feminine content, but she adds the marvel that is the independent woman as she goes about her life content to be without the company of men.  This theme, more than any other, challenged the former characterization of women in art and spoke volumes to the cultural time in which Cassatt lived.

In her 1880 painting, The Loge, we see two young women dressed in frilly, feminine dresses, one holding a bouquet of flowers, the other holding a fan.  They are seated together and one of them leans slightly toward the other while holding the fan over her mouth.  We see rows of balconies behind them where other figures are seated as well.  The two young women are unaccompanied by men and are engrossed in what they see before them.  We are voyeurs again, watching the two subjects who are not aware of our presence.  In this, Cassatt is asking her audience to consider the independent lives not just of women, but of young, unmarried women as well.  They are capable, they are earnest, and they are intent upon enjoying their own private company.  Moreover, they are enjoying themselves in a public venue that might have formerly required a chaperone.  This independent context adds more dimension to the characterization of women that challenges former convention. 

Mary Cassatt, A Woman and A Child Driving, 1881

Cassatt does not hesitate to repeat her theme, again, in her 1881 painting, Woman and Child Driving.  Two figures; that of an adult woman and a young girl, are seated together in a horse-drawn carriage.  They are dressed in feminine attire complete with hats and gloves, ruffles and lace, and feminine dresses.  The woman holds the reins for driving the horse in her hand along with a crop.  Behind them, another driver, a man, has passed them in another horse-drawn carriage.  The modernization of the carriage is evident in the lanterns that have been mounted on the front sides of the carriage.  This suggests that not only is the woman driving with the child, but that if necessary, she will drive them, alone, and into the dark toward their destination.  

Of all the independent themes in cultural and societal living, it is travel that often indicates the capability of human beings to go from one destination to another.  Cassatt uses this theme to communicate her beliefs about the emerging modern woman and does so with the grace and beauty of her impressionist work.  This composition draws viewers to recognize an enjoyable pastime that they have experienced, as well.  In this, Cassatt captures the imagination of the viewer and removes the role of the man from the lives of the woman and child.  Susan Fillin Yeh, in her article “Mary Cassatt’s Images of Women” published in, Art Journal, writes “To my knowledge Cassatt, is the only artist of the period to depict a woman driving a buggy.  Cassatt, herself an excellent horsewoman, well understood the demands of the activity revealed in the steady hands, erect posture, and intent expression of the woman in the picture who looks at the road and not at the child beside her.”  More than once, art reflected life in Cassatt’s work.

Mary Cassatt, Self Portrait, c. 1880.

Cassatt, herself an emerging modern woman of the late nineteenth century, enjoyed the freedom and independence that allowed her to pursue her passion, and to bring her art to life for audiences that were challenged by her realism in compositions of women, with feminine essences in their content, as well as, independent lives in their context.  Her contribution to the cultural conversation of her day was primarily carried on within the confines of The Paris Salon and her relationships with the other Impressionist artists with whom she shared company.  Cassatt earned her rightful place among them, as an equal to the task of bringing light and color to the faces and bodies of subjects that came to life, and were recognized by viewers as women they might even know.

Together, these artists called “Impressionists,” created works of art that gave opportunities for viewers to contemplate and consider women in new cultural and societal perspectives.  Cassatt’s contribution took her viewers into the private worlds of women together or together with children, but usually without men.  They were seemingly observed unaware and this allowed Cassatt to capture them in realistic, natural moments that gave them liberty to behave as they pleased.  Cassatt’s women were entirely free to choose an afternoon with a book, a drive in a buggy, or a seat at the matinee.  Cassatt’s mothers were allowed to kiss and hug their children, bathe them, or rock them to sleep.  In this, Mary Cassatt created portraits of the emerging modern woman of the late nineteenth century for a culture and society where, for perhaps the first time, they were not only looked upon, but they were actually seen.

Mary Cassatt: Her Emerging Modern Women, Copyright, Wise Welsh Witch, 2020. All references, citations, sources, and bibliographies are available upon request. 

Wise Women, such as Midwives, Astronomers, Mathematicians, Healers, Philosophers, Herbalists, and Storytellers were once persecuted, as Witches,” from Wise Welsh Witch. 

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