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Mary Cassatt - Woman with Pearl Necklace (G 162)

Woman with Pearl Necklace, Gallery 162

An independent and determined American female artist, Mary Cassatt was constantly faced with the oppression of societal restrictions on females as she pursued her dream career as a painter. But Mary's strong and steady spirit kept her dreams in sight as she successfully used her experiences and views as a woman in the 19th Century American and European societies to convey a true and believable reality through her paintings.

Born to sophisticated members of the Philadelphia upper class in 1844, Mary Cassatt's childhood was privileged as she spent time in Europe and was exposed early to the vibrant and artistic European cultures.  These experiences fueled her fascination and passion fort the arts. When her family returned home to the United States, Mary finished grade school in 1860. At the age of 16, she convinced her parents to enroll her in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Where she recieved "a solid, if uninspiring, education in artistic fundamentals” (Witkoski). Unsatisfied by her American education, she proposed to study in Europe, a much more artistically-versed society. Her parents disapproved of her entering a man’s world of competition and professional aspirations and travelling and living on her own in a foreign country without family or a husband (Bullard, 11).  Nevertheless, Mary challenged these restrictions and moved to Paris (though still under the strict supervision of her family) and began her studies. As Mary developed her personal style, she traveled to multiple European art shows to observe other artists' techniques. The exhibits featured new artists who portrayed nude and contemporary images rather than classical art, which featured images such as Greek gods or Renaissance Kings (Bullard, 13). One of these artists, Manet, became an inspiration for Cassatt to portray modern and realistic images of her own society and experiences in her paintings.

Mary’s career finally took off when her first painting was accepted at the Paris Salon in 1872, despite her gender and despite the disapproval of her kin (Bullard, 13). Throughout her own development as an artist, she had also been observing and supporting the artwork of other rising and impressionistic artists.  These artists focused on common, ordinary, daily-life subjects and portrayed them with relatively undefined brush strokes and lines and significant light contrasts. In 1877, one of these artists, Edgar Degas, asked Mary to exhibit her paintings in their independent, impressionist exhibitions rather than submitting them tofamous art shows like those of the Paris Salon.  Mary exclaimed “I accepted with joy.  Now I could work with absolute independence without considering the opinion of a jury” (Bullard, 14). A speculated lover, Degas was Mary’s most influential inspiration and critic. As 1882 approached, Mary was forced to briefly put her work aside and attend to family matters. Mary found little time to pick up a brush and paint while caring for her family, but when she did, her subjects were often family members, such as her sister Lydia, going about their daily activities (Matthews).

Overall, Mary Cassatt’s magnificent painting of a Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge gives us many clues into Cassatt’s interests and views on a female’s role in society.  In this painting, we can closely interpret the messages of feminine power and sophistication in daily life, particularly in Paris, that she intends to convey through many of her paintings. Cassatt was a pioneer in her day as she challenged the norms of female roles in society to not only represent and portray the truth about women through art, but also inspire others to use their creativity and innovation to convey reality.

Cassatt’s art is typical of Impressionist pieces. Impressionism was a movement that took place mainly in France during the late 19th century. The subjects that these artists would focus on were primarily members of the bourgeois as they engaged in leisurely activities, which explains Mary Cassatt's focus on women and children in their social circles. Other notable pioneers in the style included Monet, Cezanne, Degas, and Renoir. In fact, many of the paintings surrounding Cassatt’s work in the Philadelphia Museum of Art were by Monet, Renoir, and Cezanne such as Cezanne’s Large Bathers and Monet’s The Japanese Bridge. Impressionist art focused on the sensation produced by the painting as well as the perception of the image itself. The colors used are distinct and used to incorporate light. The brushstroke technique creates spaces rather than forms and it is this combination with the colors and lighting that evokes the image and emotion for the viewer (Seiberling, 1).

Woman With a Pearl Necklace in a Loge is very typical of Impressionist work and evokes a sense of romanticism with lighting and warm colors. The image portrayed is of that of a young woman of the bourgeoisies, rumored to be Lydia, Cassatt’s sister. The pearl necklace she wears, along with her eloquent dress, white gloves, and fan represent her social status as she sits in her private box at the theater. Women were very rarely portrayed as the subject of art pieces, especially in a place such as the theater. The theater was traditionally seen as promiscuous and a place where women were flaunting their sexuality (Pollock, 144). Thus, having women appear as the subject of a piece was very groundbreaking for the time. Cassatt was portraying women as intellectually capable and independent, representing a great culture shift (Haney, 9). Cassatt was a feminist and this influence was clear in her art as her subjects were female and usually the main focus of her paintings.

Cassatt uses a particularly unique technique established by Degas to portray the theater setting as large and spacious. She positioned her subject in front of a mirror in order to depict the theater and other patrons behind the woman. Notice, Lydia is watching the show in one direction whereas the other spectators are viewing the performance in the opposite direction. Though it provides an image of a large and full theater behind the woman, it also “refutes the illusion of deep space by reminding us that we are looking at a flat, if reflective, surface just behind the figure” (Pollock, 146).

Author: JOHN IMMERWAHR
Last modified: 5/3/2012 11:16 AM (EST)