In Mary Cassatt’s time(1844-1926) , artwork created by females was largely considered inferior. Few women were allowed to attend important art schools. Those who did were barred from drawing nude models, which was considered essential for proper academic training. Still, Mary Cassatt paved the way for the New Woman in her life and in her art. Today she is regarded as one of the great American Impressionist painters and print makers of the 19th century.
While much progress has been made, gender inequality in the arts remains a problem to this day. The National Museum of Women in the Arts estimates that women made only 5% of artworks on display in major U.S. and European museums. In the list of top 100 individual works sold between 2011-2016, only two were created by women.
Mary Cassatt was born May 22, 1844 in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania. Her father, Robert Simpson Cassatt, was a successful stockbroker and land speculator. Her mother, Katherine Cassatt was well educated and an avid reader. She inspired her daughter throughout her life and served as a model in one of her most famous paintings, Reading “Le Figaro.”
Because both parents believed travel was integral to education, Mary spent five of her early years abroad. It was in Europe that she learned German and French and had her first lessons in music and drawing.
Both parents disapproved of her passion to become a professional artist, although they remained supportive as a family. Throughout her career her father refused to fund her “bad habit.” She paid for most of her own paints, supplies and studios with proceeds from her sales.
Towards the end of the 1800s, women were emerging as independent, educated beings. The literacy rate among women was rising. Intelligent ladies magazines like Godey’s were read by millions of women. Industrialization was opening doors in both education and employment. Women pushed against traditional roles with many choosing careers at the expense of traditional roles within marriage.
According to historian Ruth Brigitta Bordin in Alice Freeman Palmer: The Evolution of a New Woman (1993), the title New Woman was coined by Henry James to characterize:
“ American expatriates living in Europe: women of affluence and sensitivity, who despite or perhaps because of their wealth exhibited an independent spirit and were accustomed to acting on their own.”
Others say it was coined by Sarah Grand in her article “The New Aspect of the Woman Question,” published in the North American Review in March 1894. Either way, the New Woman was a force that continued well into the 20th century. Mary Cassatt contributed significantly to the journey of the New Woman.
Not only was she fighting gender inequality, as an Impressionist, she was also bucking accepted artistic conventions. Like them, she believed that painting should break away from conventional methods and embrace new techniques that reflected the modern world.
Considered radicals in their time, the early Impressionists violated mainstream rules of academic painting. Their emphasis on light quality and passage of time in their loose brush strokes and use of color outraged many in the conventional art community. As a result, they faced harsh criticism both in France and across Europe. During the 1860s, the Salon jury routinely rejected much of their work.
Despite the opposition she faced, or perhaps because of it, Mary Cassatt persisted. She eventually gained acclaim for her work, on her terms. The Paris Salon exhibited her work early in her career. In 1877, her close friend Edgar Degas invited her into the impressionist group. Only three women were allowed into the group.
Reading “Le Figaro” (1878) Collection Mrs. Eric de Spoelberch, Haverford, Pennsylvania
Domestic life dominated Mary Cassatt’s subject matter as it did with many female painters. But her view always felt fresh and alive. Women were depicted as intelligent beings, rather than accessories. In this painting, her intelligent highly educated mother reads one of the most respected daily newspapers in the world.
A Woman And Girl Driving (1881) the Philadelphia Museum of Art
The models were Cassatt’s sister, Lydia and Degas’s niece. This is considered by many to be an excellent example of Impressionist painting with its sketchy use of color and strokes that nevertheless appear smoothly cohesive. The subject matter is of particular interest with the woman driving the carriage while the male sits in the back seat, with his face out of view.
In The Loge (1878)
According to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, this was one of the first of Cassatt’s Impressionist paintings to be displayed in the United States. The central figure is dressed for a matinee. She is intensely focused on the performance, rather than scoping out the social scene around her.
“When it was shown in Boston in 1878, critics described the picture as “striking,” adding that Cassatt’s painting surpassed the strength of most men.’”
In her 2013 article “Women in Art: Why Are All The ‘Great’ Artists Men?” Kira Cochrane discusses the audit by Gemma Rolls-Bentley, an independent curator who set out to count just how many artists were featured in the top 100 auction sales of that year.
-artworks on display in major museums – 5%
-top 100 works sold 2011-2016, – 2%
Women’s participation on other fronts according to Center for American Progress:
-Director’s Guild of America: 6.4% Women
-American Institute of Architects: 16% women
-Executive Officers – 14.6%
-Top Earners – 8.1%
-Fortune 500 CEOs – 4.6%
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