169 Years of Mary Cassatt: "Always a Woman, Never an Artist"

In celebration of the birth of one of my favorite artists, late nineteenth-century American painter and printmaker Mary Cassatt, I thought I would share a few excerpts from my recent research and challenge you to be conscious of the ways in which you think about and interact with works of art.  We are all social creatures, and our perceptions are filtered through layers of social experience.  To be masters of our own perceptions, then, we must be purposefully aware of the myriad factors that go into creating them.  My paper, "Always a Woman, Never an Artist: Gender Influence in the Life and Work of Mary Cassatt" explores the development of gender identity in one particularly gender-ridden woman, and seeks to illustrate the tension that existed (and exists) between her liberality and her conservatism, that is, between her commercial and her 'feminine' success.  This past January it was awarded the Friends of the Arts at Belmont (FAB) Award for Research in Art History.  The following are a few of its more pungent paragraphs.

... In the early decades of the nineteenth century Industry created a pronounced distinction between the social constructions of femininity and masculinity.  As work moved out of the home and into the factory, women were left with a new domestic responsibility and obligation.  Men, in accordance with Herbert Spencer’s model of social evolution, became associated with the more public and intellectual demands of business and politics, while women became the “selfless” charges of society’s moral upkeep.[1] This patriarchal distinction widened over the course of the century until the ideology of “separate but complementary” became a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy by which an individual’s gender performance determined, and was indicative of, his or her success in society.[2]  Art, as a profession that called for individuality, productivity, and analytical acuity, was irreconcilable with the private, subjective, and essentially reproductive feminine “nature.”[3]  

... Despite the considerable impact each artist had upon the other, however, in criticism of the two it is generally [Edgar] Degas who emerges as the “genius” and Cassatt the admirer.[1]  This can be attributed to several things.  For one, the belief that male artistic talent was superior simply by nature, coupled with women’s own socialized inclination to assume their art inferior, positioned Degas as a sort of natural mentor-advisor to Cassatt.  Secondly, Degas’s reputation for “misogyny,” however irrelevant it may actually have been in his personal relationships, (it seems far more likely that Degas regarded all of his acquaintances with equal disdain, regardless of their gender, though perhaps the women were less inclined to suffer it), contributed to his image as the dominant figure.[2]  Most importantly, however, Cassatt was not granted access to the brothels and other modern evening entertainments that characterized Degas’s work.  Her status as a “gentlewoman” restricted her depictions to that of the drawing room and the theater box.[3]  

Most famous of Cassatt’s works were her images of women, and of women and children in particular.  Though not unique to Cassatt, she has oft been credited with reinventing the theme of mother and child from a “fresh” and “personal” perspective.[1]  Whether or not this was ever the artist’s intention is difficult to say; her own renunciation of marriage and childbearing, coupled with the fact that it was purportedly Degas and not Cassatt who first suggested the theme, certainly presents an interesting kink in the interpretation of her images as “homages to motherhood.”[2] Read from an objective standpoint, omitting any gender biases that would link the subject matter to “feminine” impulse, Mother and Child (fig.1) for example seems more an impressionistic treatment of an accessible scene, the perspective a product of familiarity rather than favor.  Regardless, the traditional subject matter provided a safe ground from which conservative critics could acknowledge Cassatt’s modernism, and this was no doubt an important factor in her commercial success. 

... At the end of the nineteenth century art was still greatly at the mercy of what Linda Nochlin has called the “unstated domination of white male subjectivity.”[1] To say that Mary Cassatt was a successful in her artistic pursuits is therefore true but insufficient.  From her first foray into the arts in Philadelphia Cassatt faced institutional barriers that her man counterparts did not, to such a degree that it seems a miracle she should have succeeded at all.  From her training at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to her involvement in the 1893 Columbian Exposition, Cassatt was placed in a separate category of achievement.  Paradoxically, though it was Cassatt’s perceived “womanliness” that hindered her achievements in the arts, it was precisely that same “womanliness” in personal conduct, if not in lifestyle choices, that permitted her success.

*For full text, images, and citation information please consult The BURS Journal of Proceedings, Volume XXIII or contact me directly via the Contact page.