Sally Webster, Eve's Daughter/Modern Woman:
A Mural by Mary Cassatt (University of Illinois Press, 2004)
One thinks of Mary Cassatt as an impressionist painter, which is correct, and as one of the few woman painters of note in the nineteenth century, which is also correct. One also thinks of Mary Cassatt as a painter who rendered studies of domestic life, specifically mothers and children, serene, sweet (although she avoided the saccharine, unlike at least one of her male colleagues), intimate, and ultimately, neatly pigeon-holed.
Unless, of course, one is an art historian who is tuned into the history of feminism both in Europe and the United States. One who has spent a number of years researching one of Cassatt's most notable paintings, now unfortunately lost: Modern Woman, a work commissioned by Bertha Palmer (that's Mrs. Potter Palmer, for those who are up on their important nineteenth-century art collectors) for the Woman's Building at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
Sally Webster has done an amazing job of folding a lot of history into a relatively brief (142 pages) study of Cassatt's mural. Woven into the relation of Cassatt's career and the actual analysis of the painting itself are extensive and highly informative discussions of the growth of feminism in the nineteenth century, the goals of the Board of Lady Managers, headed by Bertha Palmer, in the design and contents of the Woman's Building at the Exposition, and the deep radicalism incorporated into the mural.
The eye-opener is Webster's discussion of Elizabeth Cady Stanton's reinterpretation of Genesis and the story of the Fall, which zeroes in on the content of Cassatt's painting. Webster quotes Stanton: "The tempter . . . saw at a glance the high character of the person he met by chance in his walks in the garden. He did not try to tempt her from the path of duty by brilliant jewels, rich dresses, worldly luxuries or pleasures, but with the promise of knowledge, with the wisdom of Gods."
And what Cassatt portrayed in the central panel of her mural was the Garden without Adam -- without the serpent -- and women gathering apples, a transparent bit of symbolism; in the very center, a mature woman passes on an apple to a young girl, another example of what I seem to be running across frequently lately, the importance of women in the transmission of values and culture.
There is, of course, much more to Cassatt's painting than pictorial feminism. Webster also notes Cassatt's increasing attraction to the simplicity and compositional devices of Japanese woodblock prints, which were tremendously influential on painters of the time, particularly the impressionists. And also her awareness of the agenda of the symbolists and Nabis in their move toward modernizing allegory and how she adopted some of their pictorial devices. She also discusses Cassatt's importance in bringing the European avant-garde to the United States, particularly as an adviser to the Palmers of Chicago and the Havemeyers of New York, among the most influential collectors of the time. (The impressionist holdings of The Art Institute of Chicago, for example, which are considered the most important outside of France, have as their foundation gifts from the Palmers.)
My one regret about this book, given the importance of color in Cassatt's work, is that the illustrations are all in black and white. Given the astronomical costs of printing these days, it's perfectly understandable, but I wish they had found room in their budget for one color signature.
While Webster admits quite easily the pitfalls of writing such a book about a painting that is lost and of which there are almost no pictorial records, it is still a fascinating study, as much because of the rich historical and social context she builds for Cassatt's painting as for the insights into Cassatt's importance as an artist.