Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge

Linda Nochlin

  • Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman edited by Judith Barter
    Abrams, 376 pp, £40.00, November 1998, ISBN 0 8109 4089 2
  • Mary Cassatt: Painter of Modern Women by Griselda Pollock
    Thames and Hudson, 224 pp, £7.95, September 1998, ISBN 0 500 20317 2

Mary Cassatt’s Lady at the Tea Table (1883-85) establishes her as one of the outstanding American painters of the 19th century. Indeed, it is one of the most remarkable portraits, American or not, of its time. A subtle combination of strength and fragility, the painting shows Mrs Riddle, Cassatt’s first cousin once removed. The sitter rejected it, apparently feeling that it did not do justice to her reputation as a great beauty. Certainly, it is not a flattering portrait, of the kind that John Singer Sargent was producing for a satisfied clientèle. If we compare it to a slightly later Sargent portrait – Lady Agnew, for example – we find the pose of Cassatt’s subject far more rigid, the costume and decor more severe; the tell-tale signs of age, especially about the mouth and chin, are carefully observed, if not exaggerated; the wonderfully quirky nose’s sharp tip is enhanced by a visible dab of white pigment; the horizontal flare of the nostril is anything but classic. What Mrs Riddle has is character, something as different from the vapid elegance of Sargent’s sitter as it is from the primitive energy of another almost contemporary portrait of a female sitter, Van Gogh’s La Mère Roulin.

The taking of tea in elegant surroundings forms the background in several of Cassatt’s paintings. Although she was unswerving in her professionalism and in her commitment to the work it entailed, she consistently honoured the domestic and the more conventionally feminine in her painting. Perhaps presiding over the tea-table seemed paradigmatic to her of that other kind of ‘work’, or more accurately, art, which women of the leisured class engaged in: the art of organising domestic ceremonies. In the portrait of Mrs Riddle, tea is represented as a ritual occasion, as part of a feminine rite. It may be that she saw her sitter’s vocation – building a seemly or even an exquisite atmosphere, manipulating the tea things, pouring, arranging her clothing and decor with a sure grasp and a keen aesthetic sense – as an analogue to her own work in painting a portrait: a task that is constructive, subtle, full of choices and decisions, a formal work as well as a social occasion.

Indeed, it is through the sensitive manipulation of the formal means of her own art that Cassatt has transformed what might have been a flattering likeness of Mrs Riddle into a masterpiece. Like Poussin’s great self-portrait in the Louvre, it is a painting about art and the making of art. Like Poussin, Cassatt places her sitter’s head in a series of framings which both hold it in place and call attention to the relation between the rectangles within the painting (one of which is itself a framed picture) and the rectangular shape of the canvas on which it is painted. Having constructed this tightly knit planar grid, she softens or conceals it by a strategic deployment of colour and texture, playing the blue and white patterns of the Chinese Export tea-set against the quite different blue and white whorls of the sitter’s transparent lace coif. And the glitter of the porcelain is picked up in yet another modality by the glowing striations of light playing on the sitter’s face.

I have gone into such detail about the construction of this one work to put paid, once and for all, to the notion that Cassatt is nothing but a purveyor of sentimental, secularised Madonna and Child images for the mass market. Although, later in life, she specialised in mothers and children, as Griselda Pollock points out, the images are usually freshly observed and modern in their psychological understanding of the relationship, as well as advanced in their formal language. One of her most interesting representations is of her own mother, a mother for once without a child. This Portrait of a Lady of 1878 shares a certain formal identity with Whistler’s all too famous Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother (1871) in terms of pose and colour, but Cassatt’s mother is shown not staring blankly into space, an object within a world of objects, but rather in solid three-quarter view, and reading with great concentration. What she is reading is not some fluffy novel, moreover, but Le Figaro, whose title is prominent in upside-down print in the foreground.

In her classic essay on ‘Motherhood according to Bellini’, Julia Kristeva meditates on the Virgin’s body, on its ineffability, and the way it dissolves into pure radiance. She stresses the maternal body as the site of the pre-rational, the incoherent and the inchoate. Cassatt’s portrait takes a very different position; for here is a homage not so much to the maternal body, but to the maternal mind. To put it another way, one might say that, at last, we have a moving but dispassionate representation of the mother not as nurturer but as logos. Mrs Cassatt evidently had strong intellectual and artistic interests, and was an extremely cultivated woman, but that is not the point: it is the power of the image of self-sufficiency that counts. Instead of the dazzling disintegrating colourism with which Kristeva inscribes the maternal body according to Bellini, Cassatt reduces the palette to sober black and white – or its intermediate, grey – the colours of the printed word itself. Sight, of course, is the sense most closely allied with mental activity, and in the 19th century was (usually, but not always) associated with masculine power. In Cassatt’s picture, the black-framed pince-nez – emblem of visual power – is prominent, reiterating the black of the printed page below and the dark cap of the hair above, while the almost detached reflection of the hand and newspaper in the mirror to the left reiterates the controlling grasp of the mother-reader in the foreground.

Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman, the catalogue of an ambitious exhibition organised by Judith Barter (currently showing at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts), and Griselda Pollock’s richly documented Mary Cassatt: Painter of Modern Women, attest to the recent surge of interest in Cassatt and go a long way to revising and expanding her reputation in terms of both fact and interpretation. The word ‘modern’ in the two titles is significant. It shifts the emphasis away from the painter of mothers and children, although these images are given ample recognition, and looks in other directions for the sources of Cassatt’s strength and originality, as a member of the vanguard group of Independents in Paris, and later, when the Impressionists, with whom she had exhibited faithfully from 1879 until their final show of 1886, disbanded, as a respected independent artist working within the dealer system. Both catalogue and monograph make it clear that she was an artist who was modern in a variety of media, from painting and pastel to mural-painting. Above all, she was an artist whose skill and inventiveness as a maker of prints was unsurpassed in the latter part of the 19th century, except, perhaps, by her friend, fellow Impressionist, fellow experimenter and sometime mentor, Degas.

The catalogue is most valuable for the range and variety of approaches represented by its different authors. Particularly illuminating is Andrew Walker’s essay devoted to Cassatt’s early years. Far from being a timid stay-at-home, her professional ambitions led her far afield in search of instruction and inspiration. She got what she could out of the ‘fusty, fudgy’ Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, then set off for the Continent, accompanied by her mother and a friend. By 1873, her European experience bore fruit. Paintings as bold and skilful in their technique and composition as The Flirtation: A Balcony in Seville (1872), Offering the Panal to the Bullfighter (1872-73) or After the Bullfight (1873) are unusual in the work of women artists of the period. Above all, they are unprecedented in the confidence and directness with which they confront their masculine subject, indeed, that icon of masculinity, the matador in his suit of lights. As Walker puts it, in discussing the influence on these works of Velázquez and perhaps Manet, the Spanish paintings are ‘as much about the thick and vigorous application of paint’ as they are about the subjects in question. In After the Bullfight, he writes, ‘the male figure ... casually lights a cigarette (the association of smoking with male bravura was common in toreador imagery). Clearly, in her Spanish pictures, Cassatt demonstrated a sensuality and wit not usually associated with her work.’ Like Pollock, I would disagree about the sensuality, which, I believe, was displaced onto the more permissible object of the nude baby in her later work, but these are very remarkable images of a man painted by a woman. Whether or not Cassatt intended to do so, she produced an alluring image of a very masculine male. While a cigar may sometimes be only a cigar, in this case, the cigarette conveys a macho sexual aura and Cassatt handles it with brio.

Writing on ‘Themes, Sources and the Modern Woman’, Judith Barter refers to a wide variety of related material, ranging from fashion illustrations to Japanese prints to traditional Italian sculpture on the theme of the Madonna and Child to the work of Cassatt’s contemporaries, in order to provide a context for the artist’s representation of modern women in situ, as it were. She focuses on the paintings and pastels of women at the theatre, or in boxes at the new Opéra. Women, she points out, could attend matinées alone and could even sit in the stalls. At these performances they wore high-collared afternoon dresses, like the one portrayed in At the Français: A Sketch (1877-78), in which the subject peers intently through opera-glasses at an invisible object on the stage, while being avidly peered at in turn by a sketchily defined male figure in a distant box. In other pictures, the young women wear the latest fashions, calculated to show off white arms and rounded shoulders, their striking décolletage reiterated in the mirrors behind them and heightened by the sparkle of the brilliantly illuminated crowd in the reflected boxes.

In addition to challenging traditional approaches to subject-matter and technique, Cassatt also experimented with the presentation of her paintings. ‘We know,’ Barter writes, ‘from reviews of the 1879 Impressionist exhibition, that she played further with the visual field by employing unusual frames for her pictures. She coloured the surround of her loge subjects with red or green pigment, harmonising the frames to the palette of her painting.’ In the catalogue, Woman in a loge is shown as it might have looked in its original green frame, which sets off the pinks and hot yellows of the painting to great advantage. But, as Barter points out, there was also an ideological point to be made by substituting a simple, coloured frame for an ornate gold one: ‘For Cassatt, Degas and other innovators in the late 1870s, the gilt frame no doubt symbolised official painting; its traditional profile and finish established a boundary, which they rejected.’

Barter deals astutely with the apparent contradictions in Cassatt’s feminism. A feminist she undoubtedly was, but one for whom ‘motherhood constituted the basis of a feminism that extended maternal nurture and protection to the preservation of all life.’ She supported women’s suffrage by 1908, and when it began blamed World War One on male-dominated governments. Modern Woman, her colossal mural (now destroyed) for the Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, expressed her aspirations in an extremely advanced form. In the central panel, Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge, Cassatt tried to make her allegory up to date in every respect, including the fashions the young women were wearing; in the right-hand panel, The Arts, Music and Dancing, a banjo held by a woman represented the art of music. Barter finds sources for Cassatt’s composition in the work both of the Italian primitives and of such contemporary muralists as Puvis de Chavannes. At the same time, she emphasises the overlapping of the notions of feminism and femininity in Cassatt’s project and concludes that in her desire to be ‘absolutely feminine’, to borrow the artist’s own words, ‘even while engaged in such a traditionally unfeminine venture as painting a monumental mural, Cassatt aligned herself with a less-than-radical view.’ Barter’s understanding of radicalism in this case may be rather anachronistic. What, after all, were the options available to Cassatt in 1893 for expressing the aspirations of modern women in a pictorial genre which itself constituted a form of modernity?

Griselda Pollock’s Mary Cassatt: Painter of Modern Women has the advantages of a forceful, unified viewpoint and compact size. It is certainly the best monograph so far devoted to the artist. Pollock has thought long and hard about the situation both of women and of the woman artist in the 19th century. Above all, she understands that the issues represented by Cassatt’s career and her achievement must be historically located. ‘Each work,’ she points out in her introduction,

is not just an expression of Cassatt’s thought or personality or a reflection ‘of its times’. It is the product of a cultural situation, whose legibility and significance lie in its relations with other ‘texts’ that form the overall context of artistic practice and reception. The possibility that any art work achieves meaning depends upon this ‘intertextuality’, this web of references to past and present. Her work had to participate in the avant-garde game of reference, deference and difference, recognising its debts to past and contemporary artists, while marking out its own intervention in this new culture of Modernism. Yet her work was also being shaped within the lived worlds of situated social actors who played out their lives on this novel terrain of the modern city.

This passage provides a key to Pollock’s intentions, in a study which manages brilliantly to locate Cassatt culturally both in general and in relation to the intertextual ‘web of references to past and present’, without ever losing sight of the specificity of her achievement as an upper-class American woman and a productive member of the Paris avant-garde of her day.

Pollock begins her book in 1893, a turning-point in Cassatt’s career, separating the Parisian years, during which she was concerned with modernity and with mainly urban themes, from her appearance before the American public with the great Chicago mural and her first retrospective, of more than a hundred works, at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in Paris. ‘By 1893,’ Pollock writes, ‘Cassatt was being hailed as a leading Modernist painter of both the New Woman and her ... motherly sisters. She was becoming more visible as a major force in the American avant-garde ... and she was acknowledged in France for an “oeuvre that is complete and distinctive, worthy of commanding the public’s attention”,’ as the critic André Mellerio wrote.

How did a young woman from Pittsburgh arrive at this summit? The rest of Pollock’s book is an answer to that question. She locates Cassatt within the context first of her wealthy family, then of American artists, and then, more specifically, as a woman artist, with all that that implied in terms of restricted access to art education and professional ambition. Her choice of illustrations is extremely helpful: she includes a selection of the pictures shown by Cassatt in the 1879, 1880, 1881 and 1886 Impressionist exhibitions, which provides us with a sense of the range and quality of her work at the time. Her chapter on Cassatt as a print-maker is exemplary: it gives details of the techniques with which she experimented and of the relationship between the paintings and pastels and their print versions; and focuses on the suite of ten colour prints of 1891, which many consider her masterpiece. As Pollock points out, ‘the special character of Cassatt’s colour prints lies in her technical innovations within the rigorous discipline of etching that create a tight, formal dignity for many of the bodies in these images, dressed and unclothed.’

Others have noted the technical achievement represented by these prints, but few art historians have pointed so outspokenly to their palpable sensuality:

But then, as we turn to the prints of her relatively new subject-matter, the woman and child in some intimate moment of work or play, a sudden release of almost palpable jouissance infuses the work ... The intensity of physical pleasure in this unlimited intimacy with another’s body is almost shocking, reviving in the adult long-repressed sensations of her own infant pleasure in the maternal body.

The young Cassatt was only relatively bold in her representation of masculine sexuality: she is far less inhibited in her embodiment of the mutual passion of mother and child. In discussing Mother’s Kiss, a print in the series, Pollock states unequivocally: ‘The position of the two heads is that of lovers about to kiss.’ Her concluding chapter, ‘The Child of Modernity 1895-1915’, is particularly adroit in linking Cassatt’s new construction of the maternal relationship with both her modernity as a painter and her growing sympathy with feminism. ‘Cassatt,’ she claims, ‘uses the figure of the girl-child as the means to pose questions about identity and subjectivity that were central to the project of late 19th-century feminism and came to the fore in the generation after 1915.’

Pollock’s analysis of these paintings and pastels, so often consigned to the realm of the sentimental, brings them to vivid new life, reveals some of them, indeed, as revolutionary documents in the history of women’s emancipation. Of the remarkable pastel portrait of her friend the feminist activist Louisine Havemeyer and her daughter Electra of 1895, a work in which the technical brilliance of Cassatt’s handling of the medium contrasts with the defiant unprettiness of both mother and daughter, the pose accentuating the psychological detachment of the sitters, she writes:

the two women are at different stages of their lives, and the painting accentuates their difference rather than their identity ... Furthermore, the mother-daughter relation does not belong simply to a state of being, an automatic connection which was so much the ideological aim of contemporary propaganda about motherhood. In Cassatt’s painting, the mother-daughter relation is a frame, a space within which two beings coexist, at ease, yet their thoughts are unknown to each other.

Pollock’s reading of these representations is subtle and incisive. While she draws heavily on psychoanalytic theory for her interpretations, she never neglects the formal specificity of individual works, for it is only their concrete qualities that entitle her, she feels, to make her more general interpretative claims. One comes to the end of Pollock’s book knowing a great deal more not only about Mary Cassatt, but about 19th-century painting and the situation at that time of women and children.