Mary Cassatt: Constructing Modern Woman and Female Space

Born in Philadelphia, Mary Cassatt spent most of her professional life in France, so we sometimes forget that she's an American artist.  In the 1880s and throughout the 1890s, Cassatt's subject matter was almost primarily mothers and children.  Unlike other American paintings of mothers and children or families, Cassatt's subjects for these paintings in most cases were not people who had commissioned her to paint them.  She often used models and, on occasion, friends or working women to portray the mothers, and the children were not the real child of the "mother" in the painting.   This means that they were staged paintings, something like a still-life, but with people rather than fruit and flowers.  If we consider that the paintings are constructed, then we should also consider that Cassatt is creating a deliberate message with her paintings--a message about modern women and the female sphere and a message about the maternal bond as a form of emotional and sensual nurturing.  This message appears to be a response to the social reality of the late 19th century: that at a point in time when laws were being passed to protect children from exploitation, only the upper class mother had the means to protect her children from dying from malnutrition.  In this respect, it is interesting to note that the mothers in her paintings do not look upper class, and this may be an equally important part of her message.

Childhood and children become important in the 19th century, largely because of the belief that healthy children would contribute to a healthy country.  But many families were impoverished and childhood was not an especially healthy period of life in the 1870s.  In response, legislation was enacted with respect to education, childhood labor, protection of children from abusive parents.  Cassatt’s interest in this subject coincides with this period of social change although her interest goes beyond social issues to one of seeing a vibrant physicality in children which she transfers to her paintings.  At the same time, even in her paintings of children, she begins a process of reconstructing the space in these paintings in a way that communicates a new sense of control over the space.  This control comes from the point of view of the person within that space, rather than the point of view of the person who is looking at the painting.  The little girl in the blue chair, relaxed and disdainful in her pose which unconsciously imitates the pose of a seductress, controls the space of this painting.  We are almost placed at her eye-level as the rest of the room rises up behind her, rather than diminishing into the background.  Another factor in Cassatt's portrayal of the little girl (and in her other paintings of equally vibrant children) was a late 19th-century belief that children, because they weren't fully socialized yet, retained a vital spontaneity that civilized society should value and even imitate.

Cassatt: Portrait of a Little Girl, 1878

Because it seems quite likely that Cassatt was looking at Renaissance icons of ideal motherhood, her own mother/child paintings may be an idealized statement about the glorification of motherhood, both its reality and its deception.  In giving us a new motherhood icon, as it were, she does several noteworthy things: first, her mothers are not idealized women, something which is especially clear from looking at their hands.  Second, in some of the paintings, such as the Child's Bath, we see the mother and child engaged in an ordinary activity of daily life.  Just as the family portrait became a genre painting in the middle of the 19th century, Cassatt has made the mother-and-child painting into a genre painting.  The third thing she does is to make the mother and child into a close and dominant unit, communicated not only through their physical relationship but through the composition of the painting.  In both examples below, the mother and child fill almost the entire painting.  The unity between the two is enhanced in one case through the colors of the mother's dress and the child's tunic and rosy skin, and in the other case through the matched verticality of the mother's arm, the stripes on her dress, and the child's right arm and legs.  There are two important influences on Cassatt's compositions: photography, which led many painters to think in terms of cropped, close-up images, and Japanese wood-cuts with their avoidance of perspective in the treatment of space.

Cassatt: Mother and Child, 1880 [Luca della Robbia: Madonna and Child in a Niche, ca. 1440] Cassatt: The Child's Bath, 1893 (at the Art Institute)

Although the two paintings above do not have mirrors in them, Cassatt does use mirrors often.  In the next paintings, note how the mirrors allow the woman and child (in one painting) and her mother (in the other) to fill a larger part of the painting.  In some of the mirror paintings, the mirror may also be a comment on the vanity of women and the pleasure or amusement of looking at oneself in a mirror.  At the same time, because we know that reflections are not real, when a large part of a painting (which also is not real) is a reflection, we have a double commentary on the role of art as something which can reconstruct reality, making it into the image you want it to be.

Cassatt: The Mirror, 1906 Cassatt: Reading Le Figaro, 1878

From the Portrait of the Little Girl to her paintings of women at the opera, Cassatt both accepts the restrictions of the female sphere and resists them.  She appears to accept the social restrictions on subject matter available to female artists; but through the reconstruction of these traditionally female subjects, she challenges the social "status quo" as well as the artistic.  The paintings with mirrors are important because they show us the woman looking at herself or they show us the woman who is oblivious to the reflection.  This suggests that rather than being the passive object of attention (usually the male is looking at the female), she has become active.  Looking at herself in the mirror may serve as a metaphor for the female artist who actively looks at the world--another meaning of the mirror image in her paintings.  But she makes that meaning even stronger in her painting of her own mother reading the French newspaper.  Cassatt's mother was fluent enough in French to be reading a French newspaper.  We can see from the painting that she was reading the first page (likely the important news of the day, as opposed to fashion or social announcements).  So the painting shows us three things: a strong woman whose body commands the painting; a woman who is well-educated; and a woman with an interest in the outside world.  This is a new image of the mother: someone who nurtures the mind as well as the body.

Cassatt's Modern Women

Cassatt: Lydia in a Loge, 1879 Cassatt: Woman in Black at the Opera, 1880

Women could go to the opera, although generally, they did not go unescorted.  Part of the opera experience was being part of the display--women were as much the object of male attention as the opera was.  Cassatt's paintings of women and young girls at the opera present a challenge to the passive role of women, to the tendency to depict them as part of the spectacle for the purposes of male observation.  This is perhaps easier to see in Woman in Black at the Opera.  Responding to a painting by another artist, Cassatt's subject is austerely dressed, in black, unaccompanied, and clearly the spectator as she holds the opera glasses to her eyes--note also the symbolism of the closed fan in her left hand (a fan was a female "instrument," used as a type of feminine language--more refined than actually speaking).  We note a vaguely delineated man in the side who is staring at the woman, even though she does not appear to be dressed in order to attract attention to herself.  In fact, she looks enough like the woman reading Le Figaro to be thought to be a portrait of the artist.  What more appropriate way to represent an artist than to show herself peering intently through opera glasses at a work of art in front of her.

The painting of her sister Lydia gives us a woman who has made herself up to be admired by others, but Cassatt still undermines the sense of her as someone who is simply there to be watched.  Atlhough Lydia appears to be alone, she is shown reflected against a mirror which reveals her back.  The effect of the reflection is to make Lydia herself occupy the space that would normally have been occupied by the man.  Like the woman in black, her fan is closed and in her lap, and although she doesn't hold opera glasses to her eyes, she is clearly gazing intently at something and enjoying herself.  As in most of Cassatt's paintings of women, she is positioned in such a way as to occupy a diagonal portion of the canvas which starts in the upper corner on one side of the painting and ends in the bottom on the other side, typically at or below the knees of the woman.

Cassatt: Lady at a Tea Table, 1883-5 Cassatt: On a Balcony, 1878/9 (also at the Art Institute)

The Lady at the Tea Table might seem to be a contradictory statement about women, since the subject (who was actually Cassatt's cousin) is engaged in an activity associated with the "female sphere."  But Cassatt created a composition in which the woman's pose and concentration suggest the position of an artist engaged in painting a self-portrait, the visible hand and the arrangement of tea cups and pots on the table might suggest an analogy to a painter's arrangement of brushes and paints, and the framed picture on the wall behind her head completes the analogy to the construction of a painting.  In other words, this isn't an idle moment in the life of an idle woman.  Although she is engaged in a feminine activity, she is performing it as an art.  Making art in the spaces of femininity may be the overriding subject of all of Cassatt’s paintings–the mother bathing the child, the mother reading the newspaper, the sister sitting in the garden and reading or crocheting.  Cassatt’s choice of feminine subjects, in her individual paintings and prints, and in her mural for the Chicago Exposition, always depicted in modern dress (not only in terms of their fashion but in terms of their activities and in terms of her style), is what makes Cassatt a feminist.  Not only did she make her subjects women, and quite often, women who are not in the presence of men, but she showed them in control of their spaces, true to the social realities of the period but not subordinate to the unrealities of academic or allegorical painting.  She implicitly questioned the traditional ways of representing women through her own action of representing them differently.

good sources for Cassatt:
Judith A. Barter, "Mary Cassatt: Themes, Sources, and the Modern Woman."  In Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman. (The Art Institute of Chicago and Harry N. Abrams, Publ., 1998), pp. 45 - 108.
Griselda Pollock, "Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity."  In Vision and Difference. (London and NY, 1988), pp. 50-90.