Friday, May 22, 2020

Mary Cassatt

Born on this day in 1844, in Pennsylvania, Mary Cassatt of (mostly) Paris. Self Portrait, 1880,

Here is Mary Cassatt speaking about her own painting: “To us the sweetness of childhood, the charm of womanhood. If I have not conveyed some sense of that charm — in a word if I have not been absolutely feminine — then I have failed.” Mary Cassatt is often celebrated today as a “feminist painter”. But her own conception of her painting as “absolutely feminine” sits oddly with today’s conception of feminism, which does not emphasize “the charm of womanhood”, still less “the sweetness of childhood” (and by implication, the sweetness of a life spent looking after small children) as essential elements of feminist doctrine. But Cassatt saw no tension at all between painting pictures of mothers and babies, as she did almost exclusively in the latter part of her career, and being a committed feminist. To her, feminism was of course a matter of women getting the vote, of having equal educational opportunities to men, and of women not facing formal bars to advancing their careers (such as having to quit when they married). But it also required recognition of the equal value of what Cassatt, in common with just about all of her contemporaries, thought was the essentially feminine task of child-raising. Her commitment to the idea that women were of equal value to men was enough to get her denounced by one American critic as “an advanced woman . . . of the kind that wears mannish clothes, talks loudly and with easy disdain for the male sex; in her art, she is masculine and almost bizarre”

Unlike Alcott, whom Chadwick has paired her with in her discussion of 19th century American women, Cassatt avoided the conflicts facing the woman artist by her wealth, class position, her strong personality and her refusal to marry. Other women were caught within an ideology of sexual difference which gave privileges to males and often forced women to choose between marriage and a career.

Today, Cassatt is recognized, not only for her major contributions in the history of painting and print-making, but also for her considerable influence in shaping American taste. She advised several of her friends who were interested in collecting art, including the Havemeyers. The Havemeyer collection, which includes many paintings by Cassatt and Degas, was bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is a cornerstone of that museum's first-rate collection of French Impressionist art.

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