Mary Cassatt: Rejecting The Male Gaze

Hi everyone! I hope you are all doing well.

As a final paper for my Women in Art class, we had to choose one woman artist we were interested in or wanted to learn more about. We picked 3 artworks from that artist and considered their style, contributions, subject matter, and overall artistry to see what effect they had on art, society, or others. I chose Mary Cassatt, an artist I had heard of but definitely wanted to learn more about. And so, I thought I’d share some really interesting and exciting things I found out in Cassatt’s paintings.

The three works I looked at were The Child’s Bath, Woman with a Sunflower, and Reading Le Figaro.

When I was initially thinking about and getting some research together on these works, one concept really stood out: female subject matter rejecting the male gaze. The male gaze is something that has come up countless times in our class and is this well-known idea that women were considered objects to be looked at by men. Thinking about Mary Cassatt in the late 19th early 20th century, this gaze was combined with societal expectations and standards that put women in a very controlled and monitored state. 

BUT, for Mary Cassatt, she said, no. No to the male gaze. No to societal beauty standards. And no to expectations to look or act a certain way. What she did say yes to was choice and specifically the ability for women to choose.

In my paper, I looked at Cassatt rejecting the male gaze through 3 motifs: the choice of motherhood, women ignoring mirrors or reflections, and women in pursuit of knowledge. In The Child’s Bath and Woman with a Sunflower we have scenes of a mother and her child, emphasizing motherhood and it being a choice for women. More specifically, these are intimate little moments that were just quickly captured. It’s not meant to be idealized or perfect and so it shows a more realistic representation of women as mothers. In Reading Le Figaro, we have a different perspective on motherhood. This piece has no children included, only Cassatt’s mother. It stands more as a statement that women do not always have to appear as mothers and can actually participate in other things.

Moving onto mirrors and reflections, this was my favorite thing to research and what I found so interesting. In all 3 paintings, each female subject is directly ignoring either a mirror or reflection. This is to boldly say that women can ignore the male gaze that is put upon them and they don’t have to give into the beauty standards when they view themselves. This is the one thing that repeated in each work and I think it’s such a clever and subtle way of taking a stance or making a statement to empower women.

As for women in pursuit of knowledge, Woman with a Sunflower includes a sunflower which for some time was the symbol of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. The whole artwork radiates a golden glow, from her dress to their hair, and it really emphasizes the sunflower. She’s making a straightforward statement about women’s rights and challenges societal norms. Then, in Reading Le Figaro, we have Mary Cassatt’s mother reading a newspaper. Most importantly, not only is she reading, but she’s reading the front page, meaning she’s educated, knowledgeable, and interested in recent news.

Together, these elements of motherhood, mirrors/reflections, and the pursuit of knowledge all challenge the heavy gaze on women to fit a certain look. These women aren’t posed or perfected. They are real women doing real activities. They are physically and mentally active beings capable of more than what the male gaze or what society says they can do.

I hope you enjoyed this little snippet into my paper. I really enjoyed digging deeper into women artists, and I encourage you next time when you are looking at art to ask, where are the women artists and how have they impacted the art world?

Featured Images courtesy of Artstor

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