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Celebrate National Woman's History Month: a Look at Mary Cassatt
by M.R.J
Mary Cassatt painted the feelings of a mother and child. She painted the intimate ways of a woman in her thoughts. All other women painted by men up until that point seemed to lack the real vitality and simplicity that comes with being a woman

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In 1891 a painting took form in the depiction of a woman bathing a child. The painting was new and interesting to the world of painting because of its stark lines and slightly slanted angles. Mary Cassatt found her unique style in the Impressionist movement. She painted with the flat lines and pastels that mark her as one of the great innovators of her time. Besides the unique form she found, the themes she began painting of woman and children were uniquely hers, uniquely feminine. She was painting in a time that few women artist were accepted into the male dominated field, let alone the acceptance of paintings focused on feminist ideas. The month of March is National Women’s History Month. Thus being so, this article will focus on the themes in Cassatt’s paintings, which have been scoffed by male historians, to portray their importance because of their celebration of the feelings of women.

Edgar Preston Richardson wrote of Mary Cassatt in his book, Painting in America:

What robs her, in my opinion, of the place to which her powerful style would otherwise entitle her, is her excessively unadventurous mind – for the paintings of her mature period are nearly all variations of a single picture, a mother and child. It is hard to see greatness in such monotony of subject. Had her mind been as free and vigorous as her method, she would have been a notable figure in the history of American Art(1956 p. 280).

This is a disturbing opinion, in my mind, of a woman that brought forth paintings that portrayed female feelings. Why is the mother and child theme “unadventurous?” Women ponder often and drink deeply from the feelings of humanity, simply because they are endowed with the feelings of a woman. Regardless if a woman is a mother or not, women sense things in quite times or with a child. The main fallacy in Mr. Richardson’s opinion is that he is trying to critic Mary Cassatt with the eyes of a man. How can a man, writing at a time when male thought and intellect dominated the field of art history, be able to see the sincere greatness of this woman artist? Cassatt’s paintings are a portrayal of things feminine and maternal.

In her painting Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878), Cassatt gives us an intimate view of how a woman looks at a little girl. The girl in the painting sits contently and lazily in a comfortable blue armchair. Her eyes are gazing down in pleasant simplicity, the kind of innocent simplicity that only little girls can possess. She has a blanket about her torso and she is stretching lazily as though she has just woken from a nap. The child seems only half conscience of the existence of an audience. This intimate moment is a time when a mother, an aunt, a big sister, etc. would notice of a child. The simple stretching and gazing of a child in her most innocent state. No, Mr. Richardson, it is not the “adventurous” landscape paintings of Moran. However, it is the adventurous understanding of a female gaze at a child.

Mary Cassatt never had the gift of her own child. You can see that longing feeling in her painting Mother and Child against a Green Background (Maternity). She painted this in 1897. The colors are more flat and dark than in many of her pastel paintings; however, the feelings of warmth and love are applied nonetheless. The mother is holding the toddler in her arms as they both gaze away from the view of the audience.

Cassatt is taking us into the intimate time a mother and child bond. These times are not always pleasant, as this painting portrays the sad and exhausted child - as though he was just weeping. The painting portrays the mother in her patient, yet lonely gaze. This again, portrays the feelings of a woman. Not all times are pleasant with children and there are the overwhelming feelings of loneliness when one cares for a child. This is something Mary Cassatt knew. Although she never had her own children, she had nieces and nephews and friends with children. She longed for children, even for the times this painting portrays of the loneliness of the mother.

However, Cassatt was not consumed with her desire to have children and therefore painted them. In an interview with Judith Barter, Curator of American Arts at Art Institute of Chicago there is great insight to be gained:

Barter says she believes Cassatt's mother-and-child pictures "may have moral force behind them. She was late in life a suffragist, a lifelong liberal." Barter is emphatic that Cassatt's maternite theme was not a case of " `well, this poor woman never had children, so she got it out on canvas.' "I think that - though I haven't worked all this part out - this has more to do with feminism than it does with a sense of her own lack of maternity(Christian Science Monitor Vol. 89 Issue 135, p16)."

There are other paintings that Mary Cassatt paints only solitary women in the painting. She shows her understanding of a woman’s feelings and thoughts in solitude. Femme Cousant (Woman Sewing in the Garden) is one of these paintings. The young woman is sitting in a chair wearing a soft, white dress in a garden with red flowers. Her face is looking down, intent on her sewing. She looks as though she is sitting right in the flowers until you notice the back of her chair. Women who look at this painting will understand there is more to this than beautiful, unique lines and color. A woman will remember a time she sat, doing something, yet thinking, and longing for something. She will remember the young girl she once was that was trying to understand her life and herself, not knowing if the “sewing” she was doing was really what she wanted to do. However, she moved ahead completing the task anyway, either out of respect or out of demand. Mary Cassatt captured this feminine feeling.

She was able to capture over and over again the solitary woman as she pondered in her natural world, either outdoors in a garden, or in the interior of a home. She portrayed the woman of her time and the enduring creative feeling of a woman.

An idea connected with the Rococo, Barter points out, "is the association of women with nature: women with the natural world, women with interiors," and the idea "that women are not only producers of art but somehow they intuitively have a sense about art. That was something the Symbolists also used(Christian Science Monitor Vol. 89 Issue 135, p16).”

Mary Cassatt is a woman that has brought forth much in ways of art. Not only was she an innovative and talented artist when it came to technique and style, but she also brought forth the themes that had not been seen in art until then. She, as a woman, painted the feelings of a mother and child. She painted the intimate ways of a woman in her thoughts. All other women painted by men up until that point seemed to lack the real vitality and simplicity that comes with being a woman. To Mr. Richardson I ask, What is more adventurous than the many facets of a woman’s heart? Take a look at Mary Cassatt again.

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