Modern Woman

7:00 PM

Mary Cassatt, Modern Woman, 1893
By MELISA CAPAN

Mary Cassatt was best known as an Impressionist painter whom painted various domestic scenes of women and children and continued to challenge the themes of female subservience. While living in France, Woman’s Building director, Bertha Palmer coerced Cassatt to paint Modern Woman. The Woman’s Building shared a rejection towards not only female inferiority, but also how these reoccurring views were greatly internalized by Gilded Age women. The building was later pulled down and Cassatt’s mural was lost. Alas, some photographs of the mural were taken and colored prints made, filled with bright pinks, greens, gold and purples.

Modern Woman was hung above the entrance of the Gallery of Honor in the Women’s Building at the Columbian Exposition and World Fair. In the center portion of the mural there are “young women plucking the fruits of knowledge of science”(Doss 31). This highlights the essentials of the modern woman to include an emphasis on education and a strong female community. The left panel includes three young women reaching for “fame.” Fame is seen as a floating nude female who disregards the conventional constraints of society, similar to the theme present in Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X. The right panel depicts three young women indulging in music and dancing. All subjects are located in a garden-like setting, similar to the Garden of Eden, a symbol of female sin and fertility. 

The mural did not truly embody the modernist ideals of a fully integrated and unrestricted society; however, Modern Women did stress a value for higher education and female unity. Cassatt’s painting wasn’t extremely radical, but subtly dissident. Cassatt’s work never greatly influenced contemporary art, but, this piece foreshadowed America’s first school of modern artists with its audacious colors and credible modern figures.

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