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“Little Girl in a Blue Armchair”, 1878, by Mary Cassatt, © Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Here is Mary Cassatt speaking about her own painting: “To us the sweetness of childhood, the charm of womanhood. If I have not conveyed some sense of that charm — in a word if I have not been absolutely feminine — then I have failed.”

Mary Cassatt is often celebrated today as a “feminist painter”. But her own conception of her painting as “absolutely feminine” sits oddly with today’s conception of feminism, which does not emphasise “the charm of womanhood”, still less “the sweetness of childhood” (and by implication, the sweetness of a life spent looking after small children) as essential elements of feminist doctrine.

But Cassatt saw no tension at all between painting pictures of mothers and babies, as she did almost exclusively in the latter part of her career, and being a committed feminist. To her, feminism was of course a matter of women getting the vote, of having equal educational opportunities to men, and of women not facing formal bars to advancing their careers (such as having to quit when they married). But it also required recognition of the equal value of what Cassatt, in common with just about all of her contemporaries, thought was the essentially feminine task of child-raising. Her commitment to the idea that women were of equal value to men was enough to get her denounced by one American critic as “an advanced woman . . . of the kind that wears mannish clothes, talks loudly and with easy disdain for the male sex; in her art, she is masculine and almost bizarre”.

The magnificent exhibition of Mary Cassatt’s work currently on show at the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris demonstrates just how perverse that critic’s judgment was. A clearly feminine sensibility shines through almost everything she made. Her subjects, far from being bizarre, are utterly quotidian: mothers and babies, women getting dressed, children resting or playing, women having cups of tea.

Her purely technical skill is staggering — not just in her oil paintings, but in her pastels, prints and etchings. Very few artists have ever managed to acquire the ability to represent the human form in three-dimensional space as accurately, as gracefully, and as apparently effortlessly as she could.

In reality it was not at all effortless. It was the fruit of many years of relentless work. She started learning drawing at 16, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Born into a wealthy family, she had already been to Europe with her parents, and acquired fluency in French and German. She felt the teaching in Philadelphia was poor, and she longed to return to France — the only place where she thought she could learn anything that would help her with her art. So by 1866, when she was 22, and in spite of the objections of her father, who did not want her to become an artist, she was back in Paris.
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May 30th, 2018
5:05 PM
All very true and informative. Our Royal Academy hasn`t invited Akiane Kramarik or Stella Vine (see websites) to exhibit yet. Akiane is showing in Australia and Stella at Alnwick Museum in January. Their work wipes the floor with that of the RA`s.

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