“If I have not been absolutely feminine, then I have failed.”
“If I have not been absolutely feminine, then I have failed,” wrote the artist Mary Cassatt in 1892, while at work on a mural for the World’s Columbian Exposition. Among the most prominent painters and printmakers of her generation, Cassatt (1844–1926) had been asked to develop a decorative program on the subject of “modern woman” for the Exposition, an international fair held in Chicago in 1893. Once installed, her vast mural astonished viewers with its allegorical depiction of larger-than-life girls and women jointly pursuing scientific, artistic, and cultural achievements. When asked why she had excluded male figures from her vision of contemporary womanhood, Cassatt replied, “Men, I have no doubt, are painted in all their vigor on the walls of the other buildings.”
Raised in Pennsylvania, France, and Germany, Cassatt resolved to become a professional artist as a teenager. After studying for several years at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, she traveled to Paris to advance her career with private lessons from leading artists in the French capital. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 forced Cassatt to return to the United States. “I cannot tell you what I suffer for the want of seeing a good picture,” she wrote to a friend while living with her family in rural Pennsylvania. Against the wishes of her parents, Cassatt returned to Europe at the end of the war, settling in Paris following extended stays in Italy and Spain.
Although Cassatt experienced artistic success in Paris, she came to resent the conservatism of the Salon, the official art exhibition organized by the Académie des Beaux-Arts. In particular, Cassatt had disdain for what she called “pot-boilers” and the profit-seeking artists who produced them. But in 1875, Cassatt had an encounter that would offer an alternative to the Salon. While walking along the Boulevard Haussmann, she discovered pastels by Edgar Degas displayed at an art gallery. “I used to go and flatten my nose against that window and absorb all I could of his art,” she later recalled. “I saw art then as I wanted to see it.” The two artists soon became close colleagues and frequent collaborators, with Degas inviting Cassatt to join the Impressionists in 1877. She agreed, eventually exhibiting paintings and pastels at four of the eight Impressionist exhibitions and distinguishing herself as a sensitive observer of the public and private lives of bourgeois women.
As Cassatt achieved critical acclaim for paintings such as Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge (1879), she began to pursue a private passion: printmaking. Around 1878, Degas encouraged Cassatt to contribute to a journal of artistic prints he intended to publish, Le Jour et la nuit. For her submission to the journal, Cassatt embarked on a scene of evening entertainment at the Paris Opéra, a favorite setting among the Impressionists due to its visual opulence. Like Degas and Renoir, Cassatt emphasizes the brilliant lights, sparkling reflections, and sumptuous surfaces enjoyed by opera-goers in her copper-plate print In the Opera Box (No. 2) (c. 1880). Yet Cassatt also hints at the discomfort of self-display for women spectators, who were as much on view as the singers and dancers on stage. If opera boxes, as the poet Charles Baudelaire had declared, “serve as picture-frames,” the young woman portrayed by Cassatt appears to be a reluctant sitter, shielding her bare shoulders with her fan and shrinking into her plush seat. Ultimately, Cassatt produced three distinct versions of In the Opera Box, experimenting with various approaches to light and shadow, surface and depth, and realism and abstraction.
Though Degas was unable to publish Le Jour et la nuit—“Degas never is ready for anything,” Cassatt’s mother quipped—Cassatt immersed herself in printmaking, continuously exploring new materials and techniques throughout the 1880s and 1890s. A significant shift occurred in 1890, when she saw an exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints at the École des Beaux-Arts. “You couldn’t dream of anything more beautiful,” Cassatt enthused to her friend and fellow Impressionist Berthe Morisot. “I don’t think of anything else but color on copper.” Her next copperplate print series returned to familiar themes—women bathing, dressing, entertaining, and caring for children—but adopted the bright hues, flattened forms, strong contours, and plunging perspectives of the Japanese woodblock prints she so admired. Exhibited in Paris in 1891, these 10 color prints impressed critics, collectors, and artists alike, with Camille Pissarro praising their technical mastery. Cassatt deepened her investigation of both color printing and the mother-child bond in Under the Horse-Chestnut Tree (1896–67) and By the Pond (c. 1898), works that present art-making and family life as being within the domain of the “Modern Woman.”
Annemarie Iker, Mellon-Marron Research Consortium Fellow, Department of Drawings and Prints
The research for this text was supported by a generous grant from The Modern Women's Fund.