Impressionism can be considered one of the first truly modern artistic movements, particularly in painting. The movement began to develop in Paris in the 1860’s, but its influence would go on to impact artists all across Europe and the United States. Impressionist paintings refer to works produced between the 1860’s and the beginning of the twentieth century. Impressionists sought to accurately depict the effects of light and color upon a scene at a given time. Later figures in the movement such as Edgar Degas and Augusto Renoir depicted indoor scenes of various aspects of modern life. As educated men, the social access afforded to Degas and others was considerably greater than the opportunities given to the few female artists of the day. Therefore we often observe scenes such as bars, private dance lessons, and social gatherings from the perspective of the male artist. Female artists such as Mary Cassatt experienced the tension of desiring to gain professional acclaim for her work while being limited in the types of opportunities given to her. Cassatt often depicted life from the perspective of a woman, thus giving a unique picture into social decorum’s, familial life, and society. So it is that we often observe Cassatt and the tension that we observe about her wanting to be both a professional painter while maintaining certain social norms for women at the time.
Edouard Manet, Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882, Oil on Canvas, Courtauld Gallery,
This painting was Manet’s last major work. It represents the bustling interior of one of the most prominent music halls and cabarets of Paris, the Folies-Bergère. The peculiarity of this work is that Manet set up at a bar and supposedly asked one of the barmaids to be his model. The mirror directly behind the barmaid offers a skewed and confusing reflection of what we, the viewer, perceive of the image. The barmaid’s image is shunted to the side and much of the scene distorted. Such was the tension Manet grappled with later in life: the balance between reality and illusion.
Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, 1874, Oil on canvas, 1987.47.1.
This work represent one of the most well know works Degas ever devoted to the theme of the dance. Some twenty-four women, ballerinas and their mothers, wait while a dancer executes an movement for her examination. Jules Perrot, a famous ballet master, conducts the class, and the scene is set in a rehearsal room similar to the Paris Opéra, which had recently burned to the ground in 1874. On the wall beside the mirror, a poster for Rossini’s Guillaume Tell pays tribute to the singer Jean-Baptiste Faure, who commissioned the picture and lent it to the 1876 Impressionist exhibition.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880–81, Oil on Canvas, The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1923.
The painting captures the idyllic scene where Renoir’s friends enjoy drinks and a meal at a restaurant overlooking the Seine in Paris. The setting is open, spacious, and exciting. The painting reflects some of the social change that was happening in Parisian culture in the late 19th century: the restaurant plays host to both men and women, artists, writers, critics, actors, and women of society. This would have been uncommon for the day and mirrors Renoir’s openness in the piece.
Mary Cassatt, In the Loge, 1880, Oil on Canvas, On display at Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris, March 9, 2018 – July 23, 2018, 10.35.
Cassatt differed from her fellow Impressionists in her depiction of women at the Opera. The Opera was a place to escape and distract oneself while also being seen by one’s peers. Impressionists like Degas and Manet often depicted women in the opera boxes as objects on display. Cassatt casts her female figure in a very different role, for she peers intensely through her opera glasses at the row of seats across from her. In the background at upper left, a man is staring at her. The viewer, who sees both figures, completes the circle. Cassatt’s painting explores the very act of looking, breaking down the traditional boundaries between the observer and the observed, the audience and the performer.
Mary Cassatt, Lady at the Tea Table, 1883–85, Oil on canvas. 23.101.
Like many Impressionist paintings, Lady at the Tea Tale shows a woman of the upper class at leisure, but it is more paradoxical in its portrayal, Cassatt mixes influences of Impressionism with her own interpretation of the role of women in the modern world as both professionals and keepers of the “spheres of femininity.” Cassatt packs a robust sense of a woman's personality and social standing into a small painting with relatively few details. In it is depicted a commanding looking elderly woman seated behind a table set for tea with an elegant blue, white, and gold, Asian looking tea set. She is dressed luxuriously in lace and an expensive looking shawl, her hand is heavy with beautiful rings of gold, diamonds and other precious stones. Her face showing signs of aging, her under eyes slightly dark and sagging, her cheeks seem to hover on her face, and frown lines around her mouth and chin.
Mary Cassatt, Young Mother Sewing, 1900, Oil on Canvas, 29.100.48.
Preceding this work, circa 1890, Cassatt decided to redirect the focus of her work to mothers and children. In this effort she sought to depict the realities of child rearing and accurately portray life in the women from a woman’s perspective. This indeed is a realistic picture because the child looks to have thrown herself onto her mother’s lap ignorant of the sewing her mother is attempting to complete. Yet, her mama is not disturbed and remains tranquil: continuing to sew just as before.