|Mary Cassatt, A Woman and A Girl Driving, 1881|
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Mary Cassatt was a maverick among her peers that broke all the conventions of 19th century society while living a perfectly respectable life (which was the most important thing at her day and age) and enjoying success and acceptance as an American Impressionist artist in Paris. When we are still discussing gender discrimination and social gendered roles, Cassatt managed to work as a professional artist, exhibit with the Impressionists and leave behind an exceptional legacy for all American artists to follow. Some might argue at this point that she was born into a privileged background allowing her to pursue her career as an artist in Paris but I would like to point out that she was from a wealthy family in Philadelphia which was a conservative area with very strict expectations from a woman of her position. Like all women of her class, she was expected to marry and have children, not go traipsing about in Europe learning to paint and displaying her talents for all the world to see.
She must have had a very strong will for her to convince her family not only to support her financially but also to leave behind their home and country to live by her side. She moved to Paris since she was dissatisfied with the academic training she was receiving at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts where women were not allowed to work from live models. She had to take classes in a private studio in Paris, since women were not allowed to attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. She befriended Edgar Degas, who said "No woman has a right to draw like that!" and was invited to exhibit with the Impressionists.
Knowing all of this does not change the fact that we always concentrate on Cassatt's Mother and Child scenes. She was the preeminent artist of maternal scenes although she was not a mother herself. Cassatt mostly used her relatives and friends as models for her paintings and depicted scenes from what the art historian Griselda Pollock refers to as "Spaces of Femininity". The spaces Cassatt chose for her paintings were places men would not be allowed into like the nursery.
I think we have a lot to learn from this brave woman who succeeded against all odds and garnered fame and glory even when all the odds were stacked against her. She should be presented as the perfect example of what feminism should look like. If Cassatt managed to get all she set out to do more than one hundred and thirty years ago, I wonder what is stopping us now.
Griselda Pollock, Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism, and Histories of Art, London: Routledge, 1988