This spring, the Musée Jacquemart-André is hosting an exhibition titled Mary Cassatt: An American Impressionist in Paris, the first retrospective of Cassatt’s work held in France since the artist’s death in 1926.
As a woman, Cassatt faced challenges in the art world: initially barred from entering the École des Beaux Arts, blocked from exhibitions requiring French nationality, and continually overlooked in favor of male Impressionist giants like Claude Monet and Degas. But Cassatt persevered, exhibiting first in the Academic Salons, then with the Impressionists, then in her first solo show in 1981. Following that show, Cassatt launched a handful of wildly successful solo and collaborative exhibitions with her male contemporaries; these shows opened not only in Paris but in New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Washington, DC.
The exhibition features pieces so often used to summarize Cassatt’s portfolio: scenes of daily life featuring a mother, often paused in thought, with her child. I wondered if these images were aspirational for Cassatt: her career was blossoming in France and abroad at the time of their creation, but Cassatt was without a husband or child, no nuclear family with which she could share her successes. She was also alone in the way a person is alone in a foreign country with a new language, or in a room full of men where you’re the only woman.
Despite the mundane subject and often hidden faces, the series of mothers emblematize the intimacy with which Cassatt was able to portray the reality of women’s external form and their undeniably present inner thoughts, a trail-blazing concept at a time when many men still considered women vapid and inferior. One needs only to think of the classical, stuffy depictions of women to see Cassatt’s defiance: the women of Cabanel, David, and Delacroix lay naked on waves and flowering daybeds, only existing to be looked at. The mother in Cassatt’s Woman and child in front of a tablet where a pitcher and a bowl are placed (1983) sits with a hand wedged under her chin and is unselfconscious in her plainness. Cassatt’s women are oblivious to the audience, suggesting that they exist separate from and regardless of the viewer, and this reflects the freedoms women would fight to obtain during the turn of the century. As co-curator Pierre Curie remarked to Le Monde, Cassatt’s single strokes contained “astounding avant-gardism.” Even Cassatt’s individual lines are an ode to liberation from the weight of tradition.
Toward the end of her life, Cassatt became a vocal supporter of the growing American women’s suffrage movement, with her crowning achievement being a mural at the Chicago World’s Fair on the theme “Women Picking Fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.” The mural itself did not survive, but the pieces in the final room of the exhibition resonate with its ideas of gender equality and forward momentum. Cassatt succeeded in a male-dominated field despite all doors being closed in her face, and still made a point to pull other women up the ladder with her.