My 12 year old leaned into my side, curled into a ball, as we turned the pages of an art book. Studying the pictures, mostly of women with children, I discovered somewhat of a kindred spirit in this artist from the late 19th/early 20th century. Mary Cassatt was an American artist who found beauty in simple domestic scenes. There is a tenderness with which she paints women and children, something that I often find missing in the art of men. She captures very ordinary moments and floods them with meaning.
The Child's Bath. 1893
As a mother, I find her pictures poignant, a much needed reminder that beauty really is found in all these ordinary moments in life where I can feel hidden, tired, and unnoticed in the quiet existence of my home. With picture after picture, she speaks of the wonder found in this overlooked ministry of motherhood. I think we need more voices reverberating through culture today espousing the incredible value of mothers.
Art has such power to speak into culture. Mary Cassatt, I think, knew that, and when she was commissioned to paint a mural for The Woman's Building in Chicago she accepted. The central panel (below) depicts women plucking the fruit of knowledge and passing it to their children. At a time when women weren't widely college educated her mural strongly communicated a belief that women should have access to education. Again, I felt such resonance in my heart with this image. I strongly believe in the power of women to shape culture and education. I, as a woman and mother, have taught my children for years as their primary educator. I love that mothers get to influence and form their children's thinking, filling their hearts and minds with images and ideas of beauty and goodness, giving them a love for literature and a wide vocabulary through reading copious amounts of books. It has been one of the great joys of my life to invest in the lives of my children in this way. In addition, I continue to invest in my own learning journey through reading and studying, and I love to pass on the knowledge I gain.
Modern Woman. 1893
The left hand panel depicts young girls pursuing their ambitions. I think nearly every little girl asks the question, "What does it mean to be a woman?" We have so many confusing images in society today. We are pushed and pulled. Must we be seductive to be womanly? Must we conform to the ever changing definition of physical beauty? Are we supposed to stay at home? Are we supposed to work? Are we supposed to be demure, or should we be fun and exciting? The social message is confusing, often changing between continents and across the decades. What I find in Cassatt is that it seems she took an honest look at her own heart and her own desires that flew in the face of the social norms. Perhaps this comprises part of what womanhood actually is, a willingness to own the particular personality, likes and dislikes that we have, to be brave enough to acknowledge our dreams, and live out of that fullness, regardless of the criticisms we might face along the way.
On the right we see three women engaging in art, music, and dancing. These are portrayed as women accomplished in their own right. Cassatt painted them as self-confident and self-assured in the context of a late 19th century male dominated society. And that, my friends, is beautiful.
Although pictures are silent, they speak volumes. Art can tell a thousand words and influence the very fabric of culture for the good. Mary Cassatt is one of these heroes and her voice, through her art, speaks even today of the great value and worth of women.