Gender, sexuality and visual representation
Artist Mary Stevenson Cassatt, who shared the revolutionary ideas of artists such as Degas and Monet, was born on 22 May 1844 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Although women were not encouraged to pursue a career, Mary enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts at the age of sixteen. She quickly felt frustrated by the male faculty and students who were patronising and resentful of her attendance. Regardless of these obstacles and her father’s disapproval of her career choice, she continued to pursue art and painting.
Cassatt, an impressionist painter, did not conform to standard male images of women and therefore ...view middle of the document...
Therefore, depicting women as readers, hinted at the changing role of the Victorian women. According to Casteras (1987:103) “A true lady was not supposed to work, especially for pay, and Victorian society obviously accorded respect to the inactivity and economic non-productivity of middle- and-upper class women”.
Mary Cassatt’s Reading women
Cassatt’s work is marked by middle-class women who in their special confinement create a world for themselves enabling them to use their mental and intellectual skills. As early as 1877 Cassatt painted Woman Reading (ADDENDUM A). The fact that she is reading does not take prominence, but rather her strong physical presence which is projected by the woman who is twisted slightly forward, leaning on her elbow. Through her later works, for example Reading Le Figaro (ADDENDUM B) a portrait of her mother and, Lydia Reading (ADDENDUM C) her change of emphasis on this theme is illustrated. Here the activity of reading by the women takes prominence, while the body is treated as secondary by omitting attractive physical details. Yeh (1976:360) describe both Reading Le Figaro and Lydia Reading as studies of “mental activity” in which the portrayal of the body becomes a visual metaphor for the mind. In Reading Le Figaro, Cassatt accomplishes this with a three-quarter pose in which her mother is depicted as self-contained and weighty, emphasizing her physique by placing her in an overstuffed armchair. Her mother is depicted as fluent enough in French to be reading a French newspaper. It can be seen from the painting that she is reading the first page which most likely contained the important news of the day, as opposed to fashion or simply social announcements. This painting of a woman reading shows three things: a strong woman whose body commands the painting; a well-educated woman, as well as a woman with an interest in the outside world. In contrast to the works in the same period that resemble a male-gaze of the reading woman, Cassatt offers a new image of the reading woman: someone who nurtures the mind as well as the body. The act of reading the square newspaper is mirrored in Mrs Cassatt’s squared-off figure. “ It is not until Mary Cassatt that we find a woman painter fascinated by the scene of women reading, critical of the ways it has been used in the past and ready to forge new directions for it” (Conlon, 2005:53).
This theme is carried through in Cassatt’s depiction of her sister Lydia, in Lydia Reading which is viewed from the rear, ”… limiting the outlining of her sister’s body to the large simple form of her shoulders which pushes forward into the viewer’s space.” (Yeh, 1976:360).
In Cassatt’s painting, Family Group Reading (ADDENDUM D), she situates the scene in a garden, a setting which is often used by male artists to announce the light-hearted nature of women’s text. In this painting the garden acts as a site of education where the three readers,- two women and a child - are seriously engaged...