From Cassatt to Woodman: Ideal Space

This week, I led a discussion in class about the feminine ideal, the American-born artist, Mary Cassatt, and the use of space as a metaphor for sexuality/gender roles. It was a rich conversation but I was surprised at how accepting the class was about the assigned role of domesticity to a specific gender (feminine). While considering the prevailing concepts of what feminine beauty looked like--and what it promised the viewer--we compared two images, Cassatt's Mother and Child and Kenyon Cox's Eclogue:

Mary Cassatt.  Mother and Child.  1905.  Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art Collection online.
Cassatt's work is an Impressionist version of a popular theme of mother and child. While the usual religious symbolism was omitted, the implicit piety of motherhood still resonates. As a matter of formal analysis, we discussed the "feminine" distinction of inhabiting predominantly domestic spaces. In addition, we considered the use of contemporary, "real" women as a means of subtly challenging the historical infrastructure of the feminine ideal.  Consider this while looking at Cox's Neoclassical version of his subjects.
Kenyon Cox.  Eclogue.  1890.  Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum online.
Cassatt's delicate yet independent illustration of a private connection reminds me of a more intense twin image--Edouard Manet's Post-Impressionist work that shocked the French public, Olympia.  As noted in the PBS Culture Shock: Flashpoints summary of this image's legacy:
But instead of following the accepted practice in French art, which dictates that paintings of the figure are to be modeled on historical, mythical, or biblical themes, Manet chooses to paint a woman of his time -- not a feminine ideal, but a real woman, and a courtesan at that. And he paints her in his own manner: in place of the smooth shading of the great masters, his forms are painted quickly, in rough brushstrokes clearly visible on the surface of the canvas.
Edouard Manet.  Olympia.  1863-65.  Image courtesy of PBS onli
In Olympia, the viewer is further compelled to see femininity for what it is--a constructed lifestyle.  While Manet's less innocent subject matter remains a scandalous image in Art History, it does open up the conversation to what the feminine ideal can be based on the context.  Furthermore, like Cassatt's earlier painting, Manet's continuation of the unidealized surface (via Post-Impressionism) does not grant viewers a dehumanized subject to admire (no goddesses or vessels here).  I admired the statement about Olympia, as discussed in the PBS article:
His model, Victorine Meurent, is depicted as a courtesan, a woman whose body is a commodity...A real woman, flaws and all, with an independent spirit, stares out from the canvas...
Last weekend, the same bold and self-aware spirit emanated throughout the rooms as I walked around SFMoMA's Francesca Woodman retrospective, which spanned her early work at RISD, her thesis show (amazing!), and her later work.  I found this video, which is a good estimation of why her work makes such an impact regarding the feminine ideal as we understand it today.  It was breathtaking.

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