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Moving Beyond Traditional Roles

Review: A retrospective of Mary Cassatt's work shows her to be much more than 'a painter of mothers and children.'

November 22, 1998|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | Christopher Knight is The Times' art critic

CHICAGO — The central figure in "At the Francais, a Sketch," the first major painting you come upon in the Art Institute of Chicago's captivating retrospective of the career of American painter Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), is a woman dressed in sober but elegant evening clothes and seated in an upper-tier box at Paris' Thea^tre Francais. She's shown in regal profile, peering intently through opera glasses at something unseen (the stage? a fellow patron?) off to the left, far beyond the picture's confining frame.

In the distant background, leaning out from another box seat that curves away dramatically on a golden arc, a gentleman in evening clothes has raised his own binoculars; his gaze seems to be zeroing in on the foreground woman. Suddenly the picture becomes a perceptual roundelay--we are looking at him looking at her looking at . . . well, who knows? That she's looking with curiosity and care is more important here than what, in particular, she might be looking at.

Theater is not the only form of public entertainment Cassatt has put on vivid display in this accomplished work. So is painting, in which an inquisitive yearning to see is paramount.

To look with curiosity and care is painting's bottom line--both for the artist and the audience. In this thoughtfully orchestrated work, Cassatt positions painting as a critical medium of discourse within the lively public sphere. She addresses us as active observers eager to participate in the everyday dramas of a public world--just as she is.

As an attitude, that insistence on being a full participant in the give-and-take of contemporary life is distinctly modern. It was shared by the new generation of Parisian artists who were in the process of overtaking the rigid orthodoxy of the reigning academic establishment, and it's a good reason for the word "modern" to be wielded in the exhibition's title: "Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman."

What's modern takes on added resonance when applied to the artist's gender. Cassatt is the first American woman to have attained the stature of a major artist. That she had to leave the country and live as an expatriate to accomplish the feat is telling if unsurprising. Just coming to adulthood as the American Civil War came to a close, she was of an age when emancipation of many kinds was a hotly contested sphere.

Fortunately for Cassatt, her family was rich. She began painting "At the Francais, a Sketch" when she was 33, after studying art in Spain (especially the work of Velazquez and Murillo), traveling throughout Europe and then settling in Paris to live. Others of her slightly older French contemporaries, such as Renoir and her friend Degas, were also enamored of the theater and public spectacle as subjects for their art; but Cassatt was different--and not only because she had been born and raised in America.

As a woman, she was supposed to occupy a domestic world, rather than be an actor in the late 19th century's newly emerging drama of public life. What the Chicago exhibition shows us is something never seen before--an artist in the remarkable process of reconciling long-entrenched distinctions between the public and the private, the masculine and the feminine.


The subject matter Cassatt repeatedly called into service for negotiating this difficult reconciliation was the image of maternal care for a child. Today--as in her own day--Cassatt was known principally as "a painter of mothers and children." The exhibition records a variety of other interests that unfolded throughout Cassatt's career, and there is a certain continuity that begins with "At the Francais, a Sketch" and runs throughout her work. Whether her paintings, pastels or often remarkable prints show women reading, doing embroidery or sitting by the fireside or in the garden, they always portray activities engulfed by intense concentration.

Yet the survey is also replete with scenes of mothers and children interacting. The closing gallery of the exhibition even focuses on the theme, bringing together almost a dozen exceptional examples of the subject. Others turn up elsewhere throughout the show.

They include an extraordinary pastel of a mother nursing an infant. The feeding baby, clamped to its mother's breast, locks its eyes like laser beams to meet her downward gaze. The theatrical roundelay of curious and careful looking first played out in "At the Francais, a Sketch" is here transposed with startling intensity to an intimate domestic scene.

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