How Mary Cassatt became one of the great Impressionist artists of the 19th century

Cassatt infiltrated the French art scene and made a name for herself – this is how she did it


By Jen Newton


In 19th century France, things were changing. Impacted by the effects of industrialisation and urbanisation, the appearance of Paris developed with the creation of vast boulevards, train stations, and various centres of leisure. Before long, Paris, with its theatres, nightclubs, and brothels, had become ‘the pleasure capital of the world’, as the rise in machine labour resulted in more leisure time for Parisians, as well as a heightened economy.


At the time, men were seen as players in the Parisian nightlife and the outgoing leisure seekers, but the modern woman was also starting to move away from domestic ideals. Édouard Manet’s painting Olympia and Edgar Degas’s work The Absinthe Drinker portray two versions of this image of the anti-Madonna, a woman who rejects the assumed duties of mother and wife; the first a prostitute acknowledging a client and the other drinking in a cafe.


"By painting women from her own perspective, Cassatt challenged the male perception of the modern woman."

Change was happening in the art world too, as a select few women were invited to exhibit alongside the primarily male Impressionist group, including the American artist Mary Cassatt, who was granted a place in their annual Impressionist exhibitions from 1880. By painting women from her own perspective, Cassatt challenged the male perception of the modern woman. Here’s how Cassatt became one of the greatest artists of the 19th century.


Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878) by Mary Cassatt via Wikimedia Commons

Painting from a woman’s perspective


It is true that during the 19th century, a woman’s gender was firmly associated with her art, removing them from the rankings of male artists and putting them in a category (below men) of their own. But painting as a woman in the 19th century also had its advantages, as Cassatt was able to see the private, everyday moments of women that men rarely saw.


The bond between mother and child was a common choice of subject matter for Cassatt, where she captured special moments of maternal love, such as in Baby’s First Caress (1891). Cassatt communicated the idea of unconditional love between a mother and child in connecting the two figures through touch and gaze. Other elements of the private lives of women were presented through Cassatt’s work, such as women drinking tea together in a sitting room (The Tea Party, 1880). However, these were not women on the stage or the streets, but everyday women enjoying their downtime. As contemporary life became one of the most common subjects of Impressionist paintings, Cassatt was able to present a version of it that her male counterparts couldn’t.


Baby's First Caress (1891) by Mary Cassatt via Wikimedia Commons

Changing the representation of the modern woman


Some scholars believe that Cassatt’s gender gave her a significant advantage over male artists of the time (despite being in an art world full of disadvantages towards women artists), as she had the ability to represent the modern woman in a truthful and positive manner, away from the male gaze. Art historian Heather Lane Haney explains that Cassatt’s perspective came from her “actually being a woman experiencing the cultural changes as they occurred.”

Cassatt’s 1878 work, In the Loge (also known as The Woman in Black at the Opera) focuses on a lone female figure at the opera, using glasses to watch the performance. Through this, the figure is an active viewer, fully in control of what she is witnessing as her stare is more direct and focused, attributes typically considered ‘male’ in practice. Represented firstly as the one looking, Cassatt’s figure is also being looked at. A male figure in the background points his glasses, and his gaze, towards her as she looks at the performance.


In the Lodge (1878) by Mary Cassatt via Wikimedia Commons

Feminist art historian, Linda Nochlin notes that these looking glasses were “prototypical instruments of masculine spectacular power” of which Cassatt’s female figure holds in the painting. Without the physical presence of another person next to her, the viewer assumes that the woman is alone or, in other words, without a man. Through this, Cassatt comments on the 19th century Parisian assumption, that women must be accompanied while out or it will be assumed that they belong to the profession of, as Charles Baudelaire called it in 1863; “savagery that lurks in the midst of civilisation”.


As Cassatt’s figure is female and alone, the artist makes her viewers aware that it is not only ‘women of the night’ who may be permitted to be out late. Because of this sexist standard, women of this era were denied the right to become a flâneur; a word used by Baudelaire to define a solitary person who roams around the city observing society. In an attempt to contest these highly sexualised stereotypes that modern women were given during the 19th century, Cassatt celebrates women of her time, depicting them in a variety of settings that highlight their ability to be both maternal and social.


"Despite being a woman in a man’s world, Cassatt proved during her day that a woman’s perspective deserves a place among her male counterparts."

Today Cassatt’s works make up some of the world’s most important collections, from the Musee d’Orsay to the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. Despite being a woman in a man’s world, Cassatt proved during her day that a woman’s perspective deserves a place among her male counterparts.