Impressionist and 'modern woman'

Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt remained single all her life and never had children, yet she convincingly captures on canvas the bond between mother and child.

A major retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, "Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman," showcases her popular images of women, children, families, and common everyday activities, as well as lesser-known paintings from her early years.

Cassatt, one of few women involved in the male-dominated Impressionist movement, was the only American painter included in the Impressionist exhibition in Paris more than 100 years ago. Her paintings of women in the late 19th century broke new ground in depicting women's lives.

"She's a painter who really shows women's lives in a way that no other impressionists do," says Erica Hirshler, associate curator of American Paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts. Ms. Hirshler says Cassatt gets to the root of women's experiences of her time by painting women who enjoy going out and being seen, as well as capturing their tender domestic moments.

The MFA exhibit, organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, is presented in chronological order, tracing Cassatt's career from the early 1870s to the late 1890s. In the first room, Spanish matadors, suitors, and courtesans grace the walls. The richly painted images tell stories and have a casual, unposed quality about them.

Further into the exhibition, Cassatt's paintings burst with vibrant colors. She moves from narrative storytelling to capturing modern moments.

The 1878 "Portrait of a Little Girl" shows a girl sprawled in an overstuffed turquoise chair looking bored, arm curled around the back of her head. "It's a genre scene, a slice of life," Hirshler says.

Cassatt also painted scenes of popular entertainment in Paris. But instead of focusing on the stage, she concentrated on the audience and on people watching each other. Opera glasses, fans, hats, and veils are featured. These objects gave women the chance to look at others while protecting their privacy. The painting "In the Loge" (1877) shows a woman sitting in a private box peering though her opera glasses. As she surveys the scene, she is being watched by a man leaning perilously out of his box for a better look at her.

"Woman in a Loge" (1878), illuminated by bright yellows, pinks, and reds, also shows a young woman at the theater sitting in front of a mirror. Reflected in the glass are balconies filled with spectators; instead of staring at the stage, they are gazing at the woman. Cassatt obviously found the audience more provocative and interesting than the event onstage.

Born in 1844 to a rich mercantile family in Pittsburgh, Cassatt studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, one of the first American art schools to accept women. Marriage and children reportedly never appealed to Cassatt (she viewed them as threats to her career), so she continued her artistic study in Europe. "Women were usually not careerholders at this point," Hirshler says. "The fact that she had a profession at all made her different."

During her 20s, Cassatt traveled alone in Paris, Rome, Italy, and Spain before settling in Paris in 1874. An Edgar Degas pastel of dancers that she noticed in an art dealer's window changed her life. "I saw art as I wanted to see it," she later wrote.

Toward the end of her career, as the exhibition shows, Cassatt's paintings focused on the domestic rituals of women, including writing letters, bathing children, and enjoying tea. The subjects in the paintings feature many of Cassatt's family members - her older sister, Lydia, and her parents, Robert and Katherine. Cassatt cared for her aging parents, who moved to Paris in 1877; consequently, her family played an increasing role in her work.

"Portrait of a Lady" (1878), a study in white on white, depicts Cassatt's mother reading the Paris newspaper "Le Figaro." The painting portrays the "modern" woman as one who keeps up with current political events.

In her later years, Cassatt turned to advising art collectors and became an active supporter of women's suffrage. "Cassatt really took it to a new level by being a modern painter instead of a conventional one," Hirshler says. "Within the confines of 19th-century feminism, we could certainly call her a modern woman of her day."

* 'Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman' runs through May 9 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, before traveling to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, June 6-Sept. 6. Tickets can be obtained at the box office by calling (617) 542-4MFA or at

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