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Issue 7

The Overlooked Radicalism of Impressionist Mary Cassatt

A recent exhibition in Paris rightly affirms the artist as a central figure in arguably the first gender-equal Western art movement

BY Griselda Pollock in Features , Frieze Masters | 03 SEP 18

In 2015, London’s National Gallery mounted the exhibition ‘Inventing Impressionism: The Man Who Sold a Thousand Monets’. I was deeply irritated by it. It is half a century since women art historians challenged the myth of a women-free art history and made visible both the women and the men who co-created not only Impressionism but modern art as a whole. Yet, the National Gallery was pedalling the tired and discredited tale of a heroic ‘band of brothers’ in modern art: a phrasing that was actually used for the publicity of the BBC series in 2006 called ‘The Impressionists’ when an elderly Claude Monet (Julian Glover) reminisced over the lives and loves of his pals Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. 

That said, despite its failings, an exhibition about the role of a dealer was welcome because it reminded us of modern art’s speculative financial infrastructure and its creation of a new hero – the art market itself. The dealer in question was Paul Durand-Ruel (1831–1922), who did the most to foster the market for many of the 30 or so Paris-based artists who first exhibited together in 1874 and have since become selectively known as the Impressionists. Durand-Ruel paid some of these artists enough to live on while he stimulated sales for the works by staging strategic exhibitions, working closely with the auction house Hôtel Drouot, publishing a short-lived journal, Revue internationale de l’art et de la curiosité and commissioning writing by sympathetic critics. By marginalizing the women who were equal members of the group ‘Inventing Impressionism’ nonetheless produced a skewed picture of the movement Durand-Ruel financially supported.

One of the founding members, Berthe Morisot, was represented in the show with just two paintings out of a total of 85 works on view. More egregiously, and why I was so incensed, the work of Mary Cassatt – the only American in the group and one of its most active and intellectually, committed members – appeared only once. As if she had not been not part of the original exhibition society in Paris in the 1870s and ’80s, the single work by her in the exhibition – her later painting, The Child’s Bath (1893) – could only be found in one of the rooms that documented Durand-Ruel’s activities in New York during the 1890s. Not only was this rank bad history: Cassatt and Morisot were artistically and financially central to most of the eight exhibitions this group of artists staged in Paris between 1874 and 1886. It once again prevented British visitors from encountering Cassatt’s paintings of which there are only two small works in public collections in the UK (the Burrell Collection, Glasgow, and City Art Gallery, Birmingham). No encounter means no interest and hence no pressure to publish books for interested people to buy, hence no expanding knowledge of the artist. It is a vicious circle.

Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878, oil on canvas, 90 x 130 cm. Courtesy: National Gallery of Art, Washington, and Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris

‘Inventing Impressionism’ thus suppressed a crucial historical aspect of the group Durand-Ruel supported and who supported him: it was one of the first egalitarian art movements in the history of art. Jointly organized by both the men and women, these artists proclaimed their modernity by asserting independence from the official regulation of art via private entrepreneurship. 

The artists we now call the Impressionists did not name themselves thus and were not a coherent movement. Preferring to be considered ‘Independents’, they shared no stylistic homogeneity even with the organizing group, which itself changed over the 12 years. (Monet and Renoir and defected in the early 1880s.) What makes them significant is that, on 15 April 1874, they launched themselves the Société Anonyme des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs, etc (The Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc) in the photographer Nadar’s studio on the newly built and fashionable Boulevard des Capucines. In one dismissive review, targeting Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise, 1872) – a harbour painting by Monet – the critic Louis Leroy sarcastically coined the term ‘Impressionist’ in the newspaper Le Charivari. Art history has chosen to follow suit. This is despite the fact that the group, under Degas’s influence – after disbanding the Société Anonyme for their exhibition in 1876 – called themselves ‘Intransigents’ and ‘Independents’ as often as ‘Impressionists’ and exhibited in 1879 as ‘un groupe des artistes indépendants, réalistes et impressionistes’ (a group of independent, realist and impressionist artists). The first major text on their work by Edmond Duranty, published for their second show in 1876, was a 35-page pamphlet simply titled La Nouvelle Peinture / The New Painting: Concerning the Group of Painters exhibiting at Durand-Ruel’s Galleries. Private enterprise could create both a showcase and a market for the group’s art that was attempting to engage with the challenges of representing contemporary modernity. These challenges meant not only new topics – notably aspects of urban class and gender experience – but also new artistic procedures for grasping the more intangible aspects of modernity’s social relations, so critically based on the economy of monetary exchange. This may explain why the figure of the brothel-based prostitute (seller of flesh) and even those women suspected of offering sexual services in cafés and bars became one of the symptomatic topics for representing this new logic of modern social relations.

So effective and far-reaching, however, has been the exclusionary sexism of 20th century that, for example, when in 1998 it was proposed to bring to Paris ‘Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman’ – the exhibition curated for the Art Institute of Chicago and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston – apparently the dismissive response from French museum curators was Marie qui? (Mary who?). This year, however, a spectacularly intelligently curated show of 50 major works by Mary Cassatt from the 1870s to the 1910s was finally staged in Paris at the Musée Jacquemart-André, an extraordinary home-turned-private museum that was named after the artist Nélie Jacquemart (1841-1912) and the collector Édouard André (1833-94). Curated by the American Cassatt scholar, Nancy Mowll Mathews, and Pierre Curie of the Musée Jacquemart-André, the show was accompanied by a catalogue, Mary Cassatt: An American Impressionist in Paris, and a new biography by Isabelle Enaud-Lechien, Mary Cassatt: une Américaine chez les impressionists (An American at Home with the Impressionists). It’s the first French biography since 1913, when Achille Segard’s Mary Cassatt: Un peintre des enfants et des mères (A painter of Children and Mothers) was published – a profound Symbolist reading of the artist’s later work. Yet, both these new books overemphasize Cassatt as ‘an American’, despite the fact that she lived in France for more than 60 years. With one eye on US visitors, no doubt, the risk is that identifying her by nationality as opposed to artistic affinity once again exiles Cassatt from the art historical place she actually occupied.

Mary Cassatt, At the Theater, c.1879, pastel on paper, 55 x 46 cm. Courtesy: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City

After her many years studying and painting in France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, Cassatt (who was born in 1844), had returned to Paris in 1873 where she exhibited at the Salon for four years. In 1877 – the only year the Salon rejected her – Degas invited her to join the group of Independents for their third exhibition in 1879. Degas recognized that Cassatt’s radicalism, like his, rested on the strong foundations of the study of composition and colour in the Old Masters. For Cassatt, this included Antonio da Correggio, Frans Hals, Parmigianino, Peter Paul Rubens and Diego Velásquez and, for Degas, Jean-August Dominique Ingres and the Italians; they both admired Johannes Vermeer and shared an equally astute grasp of the radical implications of the work of Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet. In the 1870s and ’80s, Manet clearly looked closely at Cassatt’s paintings of the theatre, notably her exploration of reflections in mirrors and the effects of artificial lighting in these arenas of modern entertainment. This is evident his last major work, Un bar aux Folies-Bergère (A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882), where Manet wittily places a quotation from her painting At the Français – A Sketch (now titled In the Loge,1878) in homage to her. Cassatt and Degas remained intellectual and artistic colleagues throughout their lives, although his rabid anti-Semitism sorely tested their friendship during the Dreyfus Affair that radically divided French society from 1894 until 1906. In 1915, however, their work was exhibited side by side in New York in an exhibition curated by the collector Louisine Havemeyer in support of the suffrage cause – Cassatt was a staunch suffragist. Havemeyer’s knowledge of Degas had been fostered by Cassatt. As early as 1877 the artist persuaded the-then 16-year-old student, Louisine Elder, to buy as her first purchase a pastel of a ballet rehearsal by the struggling Degas.

Over many years of teaching many American collectors to appreciate ‘the new painting’, Cassatt materially assisted her financially imperilled colleagues by introducing these buyers to their work. She advised Havemeyer and her husband on the creation of a collection that is now the core of the amazing holdings of modern French painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It was through her careful cultivation of new collectors that Cassatt was able to save Durand-Ruel when, in desperation following the financial crash in France in the 1880s, he risked all on opening a gallery in New York – something he couldn’t have done without Cassatt’s financial assistance and with her address book of forward-thinking buyers. Cassatt’s intellect and power made her a major force in diffusing the stand-off between North American and French art communities.

The gender inclusivity of the Société Anonyme meant more than just including women artists. There were already lots of them exhibiting at the official Salon. In 1848, 15 percent of exhibitors were women; after 1877 this rose to over 20 percent achieving 30 percent by 1899. Gender inclusivity was also performed in what they painted. Let me explain. As a cultural category, Modernity is the cultural reflection of modernization – the massive socio-economic transformation impelled by industrialization and urbanization. Economic restructuring had political and social effects involving not only the creation of new classes – bourgeois and proletarian – with their political and economic antagonism; culture, too, was affected by the new social forms of living. The art we still mis-name as Impressionism is better understood as the artistic negotiation of Modernity as both a lived experience in, and a social consciousness of, changing forms of life whose meanings and effects were not immediately visible.

The ‘new painting’ tentatively mapped the spaces of experience where Modernity might be ‘captured’. This clearly involved the city and its forms of entertainment (cafés, theatres) and leisure (the races, promenades in the park, the seaside, weekend trips to the suburbs and beyond), its sites of erotic pleasure and sexual exchange (brothels, backstage, boudoirs of the courtesans). It also included new forms of intimacy and family life. It is here that the historical and historic gender inclusivity of these artists becomes critically important. If we overlook artists such as Cassatt and Morisot, Marie Braquemond and Eva Gonzales – as did canonizing 20th-century accounts of modern art – we miss the subtle relays so significant to the artists and their collectors between public and private, class and gender, sexuality and other equally important forms of sociality and networks of relationships.

Mary Cassatt, 1913, black and white photograph. Verso reads: ‘The only photograph for which she ever posed. Courtesy of Durand-Ruel.’ Courtesy: The Frick Collection, New York 

For the artist-men of this group – such as the haute-bourgeois Manet and Degas – the spaces of urban modernity were the playgrounds of the privileged white men of the Jockey Club: theatre, opera, the courtesan’s boudoir and maisons closes. (Literally, ‘closed houses’: France permitted prostitution in officially regulated brothels in which women were confined. There was much concern about ‘free’, casual prostitution where the women were not subject to health checks). For the less socially advantaged, such as Monet or Renoir, their families and homes were the scenes of paternal images of domestic intimacy, leisure, sociality and working life. This was also true of Cassatt and Morisot, who did not and could not visit brothels or hang out back stage at the opera and theatre to pick up under-age dancers. In the 1870s, Cassatt, however, painted the public arena of the theatre (massively popular in Paris) as the stage of social performance by the audience, as well as a location of women’s intellectual engagement with modern drama and tragedy, often performed by Sarah Bernhardt. In the 1880s, she began to paint the social rituals of a monied American bourgeoisie that were also themes of the novels of Henry James and especially, with a feminist gloss, Edith Wharton. After the 1890s, in place of the formerly religious and mythical inflection of the human experience of the passage of time, (birth, childhood, old age) Cassatt made visible both the physical and psychological work involved in caring for a child as well as the artistic work that underpinned her paintings’ forms, coloration and surface through which her study of this aspect of modernity would be proclaimed.

I stress work. Cassatt formally studied the gestures of the labour peculiar to these spaces: be it the creative work of the bourgeoisie, such as embroidery or tapestry, or that of nursemaids bathing, comforting, playing with, and teaching, children. As an artist always preoccupied by the compositional challenge of bodies in space, Cassatt was also fascinated by generational difference. This meant the close study of the peculiarities of the unformed, fleshy child body versus the socially formed gestures and learned postures adult women of different classes.

Cassatt’s formal study of child/adult interactions belongs, therefore, to the later 19th-century cultural moment when the child and the adolescent appeared as objects of both psychological inquiry and literary exploration. Think of the writings of Sigmund Freud and Marcel Proust and, later, Colette. We do Cassatt’s paintings a deep injustice by collapsing them into the premodern iconography of ‘mother and child’. Recognizing her novel and intensely formal explorations of the emerging subjectivity of the child and her/his socialization in relationship to adults, we can also discern appreciate the symbolist interest in psycho-social complexities shared with modernist writers and thinkers.

Mary Cassatt, The Child’s Bath, 1893, oil on canvas, 100 x 66 cm. Courtesy: The Art Institute of Chicago and Google Arts Project

Intending to provide a serious representation of Cassatt’s long and creative career within eight small rooms, the exhibition at the Musée Jacquemart-André made its case despite the compression imposed by space and cost. Each room set up a clear argument by means of subtle and well-chosen conversations across media (pastel, etching and oil paint), scale and topic. During my visit, I studied the astute combinations that created conversations between the works in each room as much as I observed each work closely for their stunning compositional details. Like Degas, who also worked across line and colour, Cassatt’s formal intelligence is revealed in the skill she applied to the unforgiving precision of drypoint etching, while her brilliant use of colour emerges across the gestural energies of pastel and painterly application. At times, there are slashing brushstrokes boldly establishing form and space while, in other passages, finely modulated colour realizes the delicate skin tints and points up differences between the soft fleshiness of a child’s body and the worked hands or matured faces of adults. She often daringly left areas unfinished as if to insist, in her modernist fashion, that her own new processes of picture-making could effectively convey the unfinished person that is a growing child.

The first room established Cassatt’s entry into the independent group with Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878), a work which, according to a letter by Cassatt, had been altered very slightly on Degas’s advice. Infra-red imaging of the painting for the exhibition ‘Degas / Cassatt’ in 2014 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, indicates that Degas’s hand may have manipulated the space in deep background. By changing the straight line of floor-wall junction to an oblique angle, he dynamized the recession into space. Far from representing tutelage, it signifies both artists’ shared investigations into the formal play with non-standard pictorial space and their techniques for radicalizing it. The main feature of this painting is a lolling, disgruntled overdressed little girl – whose posture and facial expression form a telling counterpoint to the pretty elegance of Renoir’s contemporaneous portrait Madame Georges Charpentier and her Children Georgette-Berthe and Paul-Emilie Charles (1878). Alongside this work were many paintings I had never seen. These included the intricate compositional dynamics of The Stocking (1889-90) from the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon; the startlingly vivid portrait of a pert toddler, Little Girl in Her Chemise on a Bed (1890-93) from the Fondation Lugt in Paris; and an extraordinary 1911 pastel of a fearsomely earnest girl in an outsized blue hat from a private collection.

After visiting the Cassatt exhibition, I walked through the Jacquemart-André’s Italian rooms; they formed the perfect art historical framework for this show of a richly educated artist. With her deep knowledge of the history of art, Cassatt fearlessly took on the challenge of creating a new kind of painting. She played a vital intellectual, artistic and organizational role in the project of modernity yet – until now – has been radically misrepresented by a regressive 20th-century sexism that failed to acknowledge the egalitarian revolution of the group to which she belonged. Over one hundred years ago, artistic modernity – women participating equally – was in advance of political modernity – women acknowledged as citizens –  by at least half a century. It’s time art history caught up.

Published in Frieze Masters, issue 7, 2018, with the title ‘A Society of Painters’.

Main image: Mary Cassatt, Young Women Picking Fruit (detail), 1892. Courtesy: Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Patrons Art Fund and Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris

Griselda Pollock is the author of Mary Cassatt: Painter of Modern Women (Thames and Hudson, 1998) and Mary Cassatt (Chaucer Library of Art, 1978/2005).