Thursday, April 8, 2010
Mary Cassatt's Show Woman
Mary Cassatt was an independent woman at a time when it was very difficult to achieve such a position. She lived for most of her life in France, where independent women were more able to be part of society without attracting the wrong kind of attention.
Many of her canvases portray mothers with their children, and while the Medieval and Renaissance religious theme of mother and child was virtually a given throughout Europe, in the 19th century the portrait of an ordinary mother with her child was almost a novelty. And it was rarely taken seriously in an age in which huge canvases picturing the accomplishments of men in and out of wars were the norm at the Academy both in the United States and abroad. Yet, we find her portraits very touching because in our time the public tastes have altered. Rather than the epic, we prefer the intimate, the emotionally recognizable and the local.
Her painting Woman with a Pearl Necklace in the loge of the Opera Comique is similar to another of her paintings of a woman alone in a box in the theater. But instead of wearing black and preferring to be unnoticed, this Woman is brilliantly dressed in a radiantly emotional color, showing decollete highlighted by her pearl necklace.
She is a woman on exhibition and because of her beauty and the way in which she engages her audience, including us, she is a refreshing, intimate presence. She radiates beauty and confidence. Like Mary Cassatt, she is an independent woman. The difference is that Mary Cassatt is not, like this lovely woman, seen; she is showing us what is to be seen. Like the showman behind the curtain, Casssatt is the showwoman behind the canvas. The Woman with the Pearl Necklace is showing herself in her setting, not looking at the stage, but around herself as if there is someone, a man perhaps?, by whom she wishes to be seen. She is in fact there to be seen, to be appreciated, just as the painting itself is designed to be seen and to be appreciated. But what is the reflection behind her and what does it imply?