Mary Cassatt’s Paintings Take Women’s Labor Seriously

A new exhibition challenges longstanding assumptions about the American Impressionist’s artistic legacy

Maternal Caress
Maternal Caress, Mary Cassatt, 1896 Philadelphia Museum of Art

Historically, the subjects of Mary Cassatt’s Impressionist paintings—women and children who sit in gardens, lounge in armchairs and come together for afternoon tea—have sometimes been viewed as frivolous. “For decades,” writes art critic Deborah Solomon for the New York Times, Cassatt “was dismissed as a paintbrush-wielding patrician unconnected to the make-it-new spirit of modern art.”

That perception, however, has fallen out of fashion in recent decades. The art world has slowly started to embrace the painter as a forward-thinking feminist whose works shed light on the invisible labor performed by women.

That’s the framing behind “Mary Cassatt at Work,” the first large-scale exhibition of the artist in the United States in 25 years. On view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through September 8, the show features over 130 artworks and “rarely seen personal correspondence” that illuminate her “six-decade-long career investigating the interconnections of gender, labor and agency,” per a statement from the museum.

In the Loge
In the Loge, Mary Cassatt, 1879 Philadelphia Museum of Art

Born to a wealthy family in Pennsylvania in 1844, Cassatt lived most of her adult life in France, where she befriended Edgar Degas and became an early American member of the French Impressionist movement. Her body of work is particularly concerned with the private and social lives of women, as well as the relationships forged between mothers and children.

Cassatt’s life didn’t exactly mirror what she depicted in her work. She never married or had children. Instead, she was devoted to her “serious” work as an artist, as she called it. “Oh, the dignity of work,” she once wrote to collector Louisine Havemeyer, per the museum. “Give me the chance of earning my own living, five francs a day and self-respect.”

The robust collection is intended to “challenge the idea that her oeuvre focuses solely on moments of leisure,” as the curators Jennifer A. Thompson and Laurel Garber write in the exhibition’s accompanying catalog, per the Times. It invites viewers to consider the demands that childcare, housekeeping and hosting placed on women at the time.

Little Girl in a Blue Armchair
Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, Marry Cassatt, 1877–78 National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The exhibition also shines a spotlight on Cassatt, encouraging museum-goers to reconsider their assumptions about the artist. For example, selected letters between Cassatt and her family provide new insights into her daily life. “We were really struck by the recurring description of Cassatt’s work by family members and by Cassatt herself,” Garber tells WHYY’s Peter Crimmins. The collected letters reveal a “pervasive attention to her commitment to long days of artistic work.”

In preparation for the show, researchers analyzed some of Cassatt’s paintings using X-rays and other imaging technologies. “We’ve never done that before, despite the richness of our holdings,” Garber tells the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Rosa Cartagena. “We’ve done all sorts of imaging and analysis of the other Impressionists in our collection, but she has been overlooked as a woman artist—and that includes even institutionally, [in] the way that we have attended to her works.”

These imaging studies show how Cassatt’s creative process changed over time. At the exhibition, visitors can see examples of the artist’s thoughtful, painstaking revisions to specific sections of her artworks.

Mary Cassatt at Work” is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through September 8. After that, it will travel to the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.