Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Mary Cassatt - The Bath

Mary Cassatt, The Bath, 1892
(The Art Institute of Chicago)
Here is another painting called The Bath, by one of Degas' friends, Mary Cassatt.  Although this is also a scene of a woman in her daily life, during a private moment, it has some fundamental differences with Degas' The Tub, that are very much gender related.

Edgar Degas, The Tub, 1886
(Musee d'Orsay)
Mary Cassatt was a female artist from the upper classes who according to Degas had lines 'like a man's.'  She owned some of Degas' pastels of women bathing, encouraged some American women to collect them and might have been thinking of him when she made this painting.  The view is up close, from up above, looking down but instead of a prostitute washing herself, it is a mother washing her child.  Certain elements like the intimate experience of a mother and child would be unique only to a female artist. As a general rule, men were not allowed in the nursery.  The reverse would be true for Mary Cassatt as well; she could not invite a prostitute to her studio to paint or even see her in the nude - Cassatt would lose her reputation.  

Cassatt saw an exhibit of Kitagawa Utamaro's prints in 1890 that inspired her to do a portfolio of prints of women in their daily activities.  She originally had men in some of the prints but later she took them out and concentrated only on women.  Her figures in these prints alluded to the Asian type and the dresses patterns were similar to Asian dresses.  The influence of the Japanese woodcut prints is very apparent in this painting.

In this oil on canvas painting, the mother and child's gazes are averted from the viewer looking down at the water in the basin.  Cassatt used her own family members as models for her paintings and the way the mother is holding the child with one hand while washing her feet with the other relays a very natural, tender moment she probably experienced herself.

It is interesting to see the different approaches taken by artists of different genders who were influenced by and represented the same subjects. Degas and Cassatt, both were looking at Japanese prints in depicting women at their daily activities totally absorbed in their intimate occupations.  While Degas' was the detached male gaze getting a peek at a private moment of a woman washing herself, Cassatt's is the tender gaze of a woman who had  intimate knowledge of the scene she was depicting taking place in a space of femininity.

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