Inside the Woman's Building: Allegories of Modern Women

top: Primitive Woman, mural by Mary MacMonnies; 
bottom: Modern Woman, mural by Mary Cassatt

The first thing we should note, as we look at the two murals placed together, is that MacMonnies' mural is a continuous scene across the three panels--one edenic landscape with classically dressed women posing rather serenely and sedately.  Although the title is "Primitive Woman," MacMonnies' use of the word "primitive" refers to the sense that this is an early stage in the development of civilization but that women represent the refined and most civilized part of this culture. In contrast, Cassatt's mural, called "Modern Woman," is not one continuous scene.  It is three scenes framed separately.  The central scene is the most important and sheds light on the meaning of the scenes in the left and right panels.  Because the two murals were placed at opposite ends of the building, people would not have seen them next to each other, the way they appear at the top of this page.

central panel of Cassatt's mural: "Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge or Science"

Cassatt did not entirely break with tradition in her mural (there are references to allegorical figures and to classical and Renaissance paintings), but one radical break which she did make was to dress the women in her painting in the fashionable dress of contemporary life, probably taking her fashion cues from London and Parisian fashions.  The effect is that although she depicts women in a familiar activity, the activity lends itself to more than one interpretation (the ordinary activity of picking fruit and the creation myth--eating the fruit of knowledge).  These women are not going to be cast out of Paradise and in this mural, eating the fruits of knowledge is not a sin.  As we have seen, this interpretation of the story of temptation was not unique to Cassatt, although the visual expression was.  Other women at the fair created panel paintings for the Woman's Building which also celebrated women's increasing right to education, but the paintings by the Emmet sisters, in contrast to Cassatt's painting, look like contrived or deliberately posed stage settings, designed to display the education achievements of women rather than showing how those achievements are part of daily life.

Lydia Emmet: "Art, Science and Literature" (decorative panel in the Woman's Building) detail from the central section of Cassatt's "Modern Woman" Rosina Emmet Sherwood: "The Republic's Welcome to Her Daughters" (decorative panel from the Woman's Building)

Women and the pursuit of fame and art

left panel of Cassatt's mural: "Young Girls Pursuing Fame" right panel of Cassatt's mural: "Art, Music, Dancing"

The left hand panel of the mural focuses on the ambitions of young girls.  That women could aspire for fame and achieve it was a novel idea at a time when they were supposed to wear corseted dresses, be seductive and beautiful, and stay at home and cater to the needs of their husbands and children.  Just as Cassatt was not alone in her new understanding of Eve, she was not alone in her image of young girls as being fit and agile enough to run, and wanting to pursue fame.  In this panel, then, Cassatt does something quite similar to what she did in the center panel.  Whereas the first one reconceptualized a biblical story using women in modern-day dress, this one reconceptualized an allegory of fame using young girls dressed to exercise and engage in fanciful flights of the imagination.  In the next panel, she completes her allegory by using women in modern dress as the personifications of art, music and dance.  They are also modern in their allusions to the popular skirt-dancing of Loie Fuller and other modern cabaret stars in Paris and in the fact that the woman who personifies music is playing the banjo--a modern instrument in the 19th century.

The larger context of Cassatt's mural

I've included the examples by Baudry, Botticelli and Morisot because Cassatt did relate her art to the art work of other great artists, both living and nonliving.  Cassatt’s mural makes free allusions to the mural art of the French artist Puvis de Chavannes, of the Renaissance artist Botticelli, who was enjoying a new vogue in France, to the French Opera House murals, and to themes in the work of her French compatriots Pissarro, Seurat, Morisot, and other artists.  Cassatt’s references to visual ideas in these other works was part of her self-proclaimed mission to bring the ideals of art to the United States, a country which was not, at that time, noted for having a strong fine art tradition.  Already advising her American friends on the works they should collect, in her mural for the Woman's Building, her only work intended specifically for display in the United States, she combined her impressionist influence in light and color with allusions to other great periods and works of art, and united all of it in an allegory about modern woman.
detail from Paul Baudry's mural for the Paris Opera House, 1874 detail from Baudry's mural (Salome dancing)
detail (Mercury and the 3 Graces) from Botticelli's Primavera (1492) Berthe Morisot: Cherry Tree, 1891 Cassatt: Young Women Picking Fruit, 1891

The work she did for the Woman's Building also indicated a slight change in her own style.  There seems to be a more solemn or serene character to her mural and to the paintings she did at almost the same time.  The unusual treatment of space and composition, which so often reflected the influence of Japanese wood-cuts, does not dominate these later paintings.  If her mother-and-child paintings typically present a mother and child in an extremely close and exclusive bond, the figures in the paintings we see here seem to be more focused on interactions which transcend their mutual absorption in each other.  Cassatt, a woman who was not involved in politics and did not support suffrage until the 1910s, did see opportunities for political progress in daily life.  The quiet power of these paintings, with their evocation of religious stories re-told in a feminist spirit, suggests that Cassatt is using her paintings as a means of exerting "silent influence."  Where Sarah Hale made her silent influence present in the editorial design of her magazine, Cassatt made her silent influence visible in her art.

Cassatt: Child Picking a Fruit, 1893 detail from the central section of Cassatt's "Modern Woman" Cassatt: The Family, 1893

[note: you should be able to recognize and identify the details from Cassatt's mural as well as her paintings.]