Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Happy Birthday Mary Cassatt - A True Feminist

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.  

Although the subject matter is perfectly Impressionistic, that of a scene from daily life, in her painting, A Woman and a Girl Driving,  Cassatt once again completely upends all the traditional roles and the classifications she has been put into.  I find the concept of the woman driving the carriage which would be considered quite risque in 19th century with a groom sitting idly in the back perfectly entertaining.  While the woman has a very serious expression on her face, attesting to her concentration, the groom gets to watch the scenery go by from his backward facing position sitting behind her.  Cassatt's mastery is not only in her choice of subject matter but also in her brushwork as well. While the sketchy brushwork of Berthe Morisot, the other famous female Impressionist artist is always referred to as feminine, no one makes the mistake of considering Mary Cassatt's bold application of paint as befitting her gender.  

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


  1. Hi Sedef --

    I love your discussion of "A Woman and Girl Driving" -- the woman driving does look so earnest and focused. I'm asking myself, would I rather be the woman driving, bucking convention and being strong and responsible? or would I rather sit on the back and watch the world go by? Depends on the day!:)

    I'm also interested that Cassatt worked within the system to get what she wanted, don't you think? And in her place in her world -- that she was a woman and therefore accepted in places like the nursery, as you mention, but she wasn't a mother, so I wonder how much she was actually accepted in that world. I know that she had good and loving relationships with the children in her circle -- was that enough for her to be accepted? She seemed to successfully negotiate both the typical men's and women's world -- quite a feat! And yes, what IS stopping us now from getting what we want??!!

    Love it - thanks, Sedef!

  2. Dear ! Happy Birthday! Keep being find out more natural, beautiful, passionate, light. You are excellent women with bright individuality, sincerity and huge charm. Let all your undertakings succeed and your confidence never leaves you. Joy and health to you and your nearest and dearest. And also love and happiness. Ukraine


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