Inside the Woman's Building: Allegories
of Modern Women
Woman, mural by Mary MacMonnies;
bottom: Modern Woman, mural by
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.
panel of Cassatt's mural: "Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge
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
||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
of Cassatt's mural: "Young Girls Pursuing Fame"
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.
from Paul Baudry's mural for the Paris Opera House, 1874
from Baudry's mural (Salome dancing)
(Mercury and the 3 Graces) from Botticelli's Primavera (1492)
Morisot: Cherry Tree, 1891
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.
Child Picking a Fruit, 1893
||detail from the central section of Cassatt's
The Family, 1893
[note: you should be able to
recognize and identify the details from Cassatt's mural as well as her