As an American and a woman, artist Mary Cassatt was a rarity among the French Impressionist masters.
Curator, Judith Barter: "She was modern as a painter, modern as subject matter, modern as her treatment of familiar things."
Barter entitled her exhibit Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman, even though the images, at first glance, seem old-fashioned and overly sweet. Debuting at the Art Institute of Chicago, it is the first major retrospective of Cassatt's work in 30 years.
"Women painters were usually considered amateurs, or this was something genteel that girls weren't to do," says Barter. Cassatt, she adds, "was determined to become a professional painter."
The appeal of Cassatt convinced Barbara Weinberg, also a curator, to design a companion to the Chicago exhibit at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. She says: "Some of the self-confident insistence about finding a place for herself in this very tough artistic world of the late 19th century in Paris is encoded in these works. She is not just portraying delicate or overly genteel women. She's portraying people who are molding young children and teaching them, nurturing them, bathing them, doing whatever's necessary with their own powerful hands, powerful bodies, powerful minds, even."
Though motherhood was the focus of her work, Cassatt herself defied convention. She never married.
"She decided to become a professional artist very early on," says Weinberg. "Despite the aversion of her father to the very idea, she decided to go to Paris to complete her education as an artist in the middle of the 1860's, when hardly any Americans, men or women, were going to take that very serious professional step."
Born in Pittsburgh in 1844, Cassatt early on was determined to paint "better than the old masters." That meant moving to Europe.
"Most people don't know about these incredibly early pictures from Italy and Spain," says Barter, "and the...sensual representations of the bullfighters...or fabulous opera pictures loaded with mirrors and lights and glittering fans and bouquets being held by young girls and bare flesh off the shoulders."
James Wood is the director of the Art Institute of Chicago: "Was she as famous or as productive as Monet or Degas? No. Did she bring something that neither of them did? Yes."
"As a man, looking at her work," says Wood, "one of my first impressions is how tough it is...it may be that a woman painting women creates the strongest images of women we've seen for long time."
For Wood, Cassatt's genius showed in her ability to
modernize religious images that were painted by the old masters whom she had determined to best: Madonna and child images.
"A man never painted a picture like that," Wood declares. "Maybe the men were better painting religious pictures. Maybe the men could do a Madonna, but not the woman next door."
Cassatt wrote to a friend: "I confess I love health and strength. Almost all my pictures with children have the mother holding them. Would you could hear them talk. Their philosophy would astonish you."
Though motherhood was a central theme, Cassatt was not overly sentimental about the subject. When told of a plan to create a national holiday for mothers, she said, "I can't think of anything more absurd."
Like her mentor, Edgar Degas, Cassatt worked in oil, watercolor, and pastels, and she made prints. The New York exhibit contains a series of pastels, now too fragile to travel.
"You can see her in the handling of the sleeves of the nurse, of the dress of the child, the layer upon layer of chalk, and she's very, very careful to use these layers without getting them muddy - which is quite an accomplishment in pastel," says Weinberg.
Both shows feature Cassatt's innovative series of 10 aqua-tints produced in 1890 and 1891. Chicago curator Judith Barter says: "One of the things the Impressionists were interested in were serial paintings - the idea of taking a theme and interpreting it in as many different ways as possible. And she does 10 hours in a modern Parisian's day, from bathing the child to sweeping up her coiffeurÂ….And these are mundane subjects made extraordinarily elegant and beautiful and profound."
If anything, Cassatt's work over the years has suffered from too much familiarity. Barter says: "Every time I see a greeting card or a calendar and I see a Mommy and a baby in it, I think this is what people think about Mary Cassatt. And yet, the purposes of doing an exhibition like this for me was to show people how much more there is."
Cassatt's women are strong and serious; their hands large and active. The women are not merely decorative, as most men painted them. Like the artist herself, Cassatt's women heralded freedoms and complexities to come.
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