Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Lydia at a Tapestry Frame, 1881, oil on canvas, 65.5 x 92 cm, Flint Institute of the Arts.
The practice of women artists was increasingly determined in the nineteenth century by the consolidation of bourgeois society and its ideologies of femininity – the natural essence of womanhood sustained and reproduced through the location of women in the home and identification of women with domesticity. Later in the nineteenth century the Impressionist movement turned away from bourgeois classicism and history painting to genre scenes of contemporary modern life. Moreover they rejected official institutions and established their own exhibition society to which a number of women artists were drawn. With the Impressionist group, Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) and Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) not only found a more congenial environment for their radical art politics, but, because of the Impressionist ethos of ‘modernity’, they were able to draw upon their direct experiences of the circumscribed lives of bourgeois women in the family as subject matter for their artistic practice. However, the contradictions they experienced as women and artists, though comparable in some ways to those experienced by earlier generations of women artists, were magnified by the rigid social roles and definitions of femininity constructed within bourgeois society.
The passage from girlhood to womanhood fascinated both male and female writers and artists in the nineteenth century but with significant differences. For woman the onset of puberty was the onset of their bondage; for male writers it was the moment of the mystery of femininity. Morisot frequently painted adolescent girls, often with great poignancy, as in the numerous portraits of her daughter. In Psyche, a young girl dresses in front of a mirror, also known in French as psyché, but pauses in private reverie, for which the title provides no clues. Psyche was the mortal who fell in love with Cupid and aroused the jealousy of Venus. Her unhappy state finally won the compassion of Venus and she was reunited with Cupid. The theme of awakening sexuality and young love had attracted Romantic artists to the story. Morisot’s painting, however, strips the story of its classical garb and offers a contemporary Psyche, half-dressed, in brilliant whites, in a boudoir, looking at herself, her adolescent sexuality subdued, turned in on itself, private, dreamy.
Mary Cassatt was far more radical in her examination of the phases of women’s lives and the social and ideological constraints with which they lived. Cassatt was an American, an expatriate who had chosen to live in France for her working life because she felt that Europe offered more opportunities than her native country for a woman to do serious work, in her own words, ‘to be someone not something’. She was not only a supporter of women’s campaigns for political emancipation, but she herself stated in letters that that her involvement with the struggle of independent artists against the salon and its jury system was a political commitment, moreover, both in the subjects she chose to paint and the way in which she painted them. In her works Cassatt critically analysed the life of bourgeois women from infancy to old age in such a way that their acquisition of ‘femininity’ is exposed as a social process, not as the essence of womanliness, ideologically imputed to women as nature, but a result of their introduction into place in the social order. The way in which she represented these processes is crucial. Her bold and decisive style effectively subverted traditional images of women, the mother and female child, for instance.
Because her subject matter was drawn – of social necessity – from the world of women in which she lived as an unmarried daughter of a bourgeois family, because she addressed herself to the stages of women’s lives – as young girls, mothers, matrons, in families, in the domestic sphere – her paintings are easily mis-recognised. Instead of being seen as a radical critique of dominant ideologies, they are used as confirmation of them. Yet even in those works depicting a woman engaged in what was in the nineteenth century the feminine domestic activity, ‘woman’s work’, embroidery, Cassatt’s treatment undermines the ideology. In Lydia at a Tapestry Frame (above) the composition is boldly painted and presents a picture of a woman absorbed in work. But the woman and her work are placed in a confined space, enclosed. That containment is almost brutally broken and aggressively thrown at the spectator by the way in which the wooden embroidery frame threatens to break out of the flat plane of painting. This is but one example of the way in which Cassatt manipulated space and compositional structure to endow what women did in the home with respect and seriousness, while at the same time being able to make us recognise the limitations resulting from the confinement of bourgeois women in the domestic sphere alone. RP & GP
The above article is taken from Rozika Parker and Griselda Pollock‘s ground-breaking Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology. Newly re-issued, this updated edition offers a radical challenge to a women-free Art History.