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Mary Cassatt, "By omnibus (or interior of a tram passing over a bridge)", c. 1890-1891, Bibliothèque nationale de France, photo © BnF, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image BnF

As a woman, Mary Cassatt was not allowed to study at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts. Taking their cue from that prohibition, contemporary art historians have made much of  the way that anti-woman prejudice and sexism impeded Cassatt’s career. But it is actually not clear at all that, at least artistically, she suffered seriously from male sexism. Yes, she was barred from taking classes at the Beaux Arts. But so were her male American counterparts: the Academy was for French citizens only.  She could take private classes with the instructors from the Beaux Arts — and she did. The only barriers to that were having enough skill to persuade an instructor to take you on, and enough money to pay his fees. Mary Cassatt easily qualified on both counts, and she took lessons from (among others) the Beaux Arts professor Jean-Léon Gérôme.

She couldn’t attend classes where there were nude male models — but she could draw them when they appeared with their underpants on. Did that restriction hinder her development as an artist? If it did, it is not easy to see exactly how. She seemed to have no great interest in drawing or painting naked men. They would not certainly be a significant part of her artistic output — or indeed any part of it at all. Throughout her career, she only rarely painted clothed men. In all her paintings in the exhibition, there is only one which depicts a man: a portrait of her brother and his young son. She never painted nude men. It requires an unusually bizarre form of phallocentrism to think that this limited her as an artist.

The first painting she submitted to the Paris Salon — The Mandolin Player, in 1868 — was accepted by the all-male jury that decided which pictures would be exhibited. Most male artists, including some of the most distinguished ones, had to try several times before a work of theirs was shown at the Paris Salon, and some, such as Van Gogh, never succeeded in getting a picture past the selection panel. But the Salon accepted the pictures Mary Cassatt submitted for its consideration regularly for the next nine years.

Looking at some of her Salon pictures now, you are struck by the realisation that if they had been the only art she had created, she would certainly not be remembered today as a major painter. They are essentially extremely competent imitations of the sort of canvases produced by Italian artists from the first half of the 17th century, such as Domenichino, Guercino and Guido Reni when they were painting non-religious subjects. But they are nothing more than that. And many of her contemporaries were able to produce competent imitations of 17th-century Italian painters.
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May 30th, 2018
5:05 PM
All very true and informative. Our Royal Academy hasn`t invited Akiane Kramarik or Stella Vine (see websites) to exhibit yet. Akiane is showing in Australia and Stella at Alnwick Museum in January. Their work wipes the floor with that of the RA`s.

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