The Landscape of Maternity

Among the founders of the institute were avid collectors of the French Impressionists. As a result, this museum today boasts the preeminent collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works outside of France.

"The Bath" (1891-92) by Mary Cassatt is a personal favorite of Judith Barter, curator of American Arts at the Art Institute of Chicago. And lately she has been giving it extra attention.

It is featured in a recently reinstalled gallery, hanging alongside "American expatriates and stay-at-homes - the Whistlers, the Homers, the Sargents, and the Cassatts all together," she says. And it is to be a highlight of a Cassatt retrospective opening October 1998 in Chicago. (It will also travel to Boston and Washington, D.C.)

"['The Bath'] will be on the catalog cover, if I have anything to say about it," Barter says, laughing. As one of the authors of the four essays to be in the catalog, she has been pondering the many sides of Cassatt (1844-1926).

"Cassatt was the only American in the French Impressionist circle. She firmly identified herself as an American, even though she was always involved with French art."

The cultural mix in her work goes even further. In "The Bath," which Barter describes as "just beautifully painted," a lot of things from Cassatt's earlier development "have come together."

First is the picture's "obvious debt to Japanese prints: the way patterns run up against each other in a very flattened picture plane. Cassatt, like her Impressionist associates, was an avid collector, particularly of prints by Utamaro. From the 1870s she was thoroughly versed in Japonisme."

Then there is Cassatt's debt to Manet, notably his "Spanish" pictures. "She was sponge-like; everything was grist for her mill." After her trip to Spain in the early 1870s, "she was very much influenced by Velsquez and somewhat by Murillo, in many of the same ways that Manet was."

The influence of Renoir and Degas was felt in her first Impressionist paintings - of the opera. "They're just spectacular. She's painting the audience, but emphasizes female figures. She seldom uses male figures. She'll show two women together rather than a man and a woman.

"Then around 1882 she starts painting domestic interiors. There were both personal and artistic reasons for that. She lived in Paris with her sister, and her parents then came over as well. She had heavy household responsibilities. The paintings and prints she did produce at this time show people reading, on balconies, in gardens, at the tea table."

Barter sees "The Bath" continuing this domestic tradition. Interior spaces even today are a female domain. This also ties in with Utamaro, whose subjects are "essentially women in their domestic spaces, often with children." Maternit - motherhood - another theme in "The Bath," also had begun in her work about 10 years earlier.

Barter has a theory about the origin of mothers and children as a Cassatt preoccupation. "I've been looking at the Louvre exhibitions of the 1880s," she says, "and in 1881-82 there's a huge one to do with early Florentine and Tuscan sculpture: Luca della Robbia's madonna-and-child reliefs, for example. I have found a couple of instances where a sculpture included in the exhibition lines up with one of Cassatt's compositions."

"So, she's taking all these important themes from different cultures and modernizing them."

"The Bath" belongs to Cassatt's Impressionist phase. But Barter says she believes that in it the artist is about to "cross the line from Impressionism into a Symbolist mentality." Cassatt's late works arguably have "quasi-religious," Symbolist overtones. (Symbolism was a late-19th-century movement.)

BARTER has been looking at other aspects of Cassatt's time: for instance, "the French fashion magazines of the 1880s. I think she was looking at them, too. Again, only women, groups of women.

"And she was interested in the Rococo Revival in Paris during the late 1870s and '80s - France's equivalent to the British Arts and Crafts movement." But instead of medievalism, "in France this interest in the pre-industrial, when 'things were better,' is focused on the 18th century, the very end of the monarchy - the Rococo.

"This chest in the background of 'The Bath' is very Rococo." It belonged to Cassatt. Barter has found a bill of sale for another 18th-century piece owned by Cassatt.

An idea connected with the Rococo, Barter points out, "is the association of women with nature: women with the natural world, women with interiors," and the idea "that women are not only producers of art but somehow they intuitively have a sense about art. That was something the Symbolists also used."

Barter says she believes Cassatt's mother-and-child pictures "may have moral force behind them. She was late in life a suffragist, a lifelong liberal." Barter is emphatic that Cassatt's maternit theme was not a case of " 'well, this poor woman never had children, so she got it out on canvas.'

"I think that - though I haven't worked all this part out - this has more to do with feminism than it does with a sense of her own lack of maternity."

* Second in a series. Part 1 ran June 2.

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