Cassatt the feminist

The New York Public Library has a sweet exhibit of Mary Cassatt prints currently on view.  The works show the influence of Japanese print aesthetics, particularly linear flattening.  What’s wonderful about the prints is you see her hand at work.  She was an innovator, mixing print forms like drypoint, aquatint, and softground, all on one work, even as she was showing conventional subject matters–studies of her sister, mother and child, the usual.  Many are quite abstracted.

Eve's Daughter/Modern Woman: A MURAL BY MARY CASSATT

What drew me to NYPL today was the lecture by Sally Webster:  Mary Cassatt, Women’s Suffrage, and Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.  

I’ve missed Webster academically, as she’s retired.  But at least, I got to hear her speak about Cassatt’s missing mural from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair Women’s Pavilion.  Webster has written a book on the topic, if you’re interested.


The 1890s found the woman’s movement in resurgence, after two splinter parties reunited.  But even as the World’s Fair included a Woman’s Building, many feminists have decried the separation from man, ghettoizing their art, writing, architecture, and thought.  Webster showed how the pavilion was architecturally removed from the main part of the fair.  Still, the Woman’s Building was one of the most visited at the fair.

Cassatt’s three panel mural was one of six in the Gallery of Honor.

Unfortunately, since the panels have been lost, only these black and white images are available.

The middle panel features 12 women in contemporary dress harvesting fruit, and it’s called “Young Girls Plucking the Fruit of Art or Science.”  Webster talked about the scene as an allegory (where a figure stands in for an idea), but also placed it in historical context.  After the Civil War, the Seven Sisters colleges opened, and women were could more easily get a college education.  And she suggested that the women plucking knowledge were a direct assault on Genesis.

The Woman's Bible: A Classic Feminist Perspective


If so, Cassatt was keeping good company.  In 1895, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of my heroes, at 80 years old rewrote the Bible.  She was condemned as a heretic, but her assault on how the Bible justifies women’s second class status is still in print today.  Cassatt offers her own repositioning of the Eve story, where she celebrates women gaining knowledge, rather than be punished for it.

The right panel shows women as Art, Music, and Dance, allegories of course, but presented in contemporary dress, enjoying themselves.

The left panel: “Young Girls Pursuing Fame,” with Fame as an allegory, but even more, attacking the demure, self-effacing Cult of True Womanhood that dominated much of the 1800s in the U.S. and Europe.

Webster concluded by suggesting that the three panels of the mural taken together represent the three stages of a woman’s life and more:

Childhood – harvesting

Youth – enjoying what’s been harvested

Maturity – the ambition to pursue our dreams (as active participants in the Arts)

In 1893, Cassatt herself had reached maturity, with a 30 year career behind her, fighting her own battles with the Cult of True Womanhood.  She left us an innovative, subversive voice.  Thank you, Sally Webster, for bringing a lost work to life.