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Mary Cassatt and the Impressionists

March 4th, 2019

Painting of Woman knitting in a garden while a baby sleeps and a child plays.
Mary Stevenson Cassatt. Children in a Garden (The Nurse), detail,.1878. Oil on canvas, Overall: 65.4 × 81 cm. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Meredith J. Long, 2001.471.

Have you checked out Impressionism in the Age of Industry yet? Trust us, you don’t want to miss it. Standing out among the images of trains, ports and heavy industry, you’ll find a sunny garden scene (perhaps its warmth sticks out against this season’s seemingly endless polar vortexes and ice storms!). Painted by American-born artist Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), she was the only American to be officially associated with the Impressionists.

Cassatt was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, and spent part of her childhood in France and Germany. She studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, but soon became frustrated with the program’s pace and the condescending attitude of her male instructors and colleagues. She moved to Paris in 1865, determined to refine her skills and work as a professional artist. The École des Beaux-Arts did not accept women. Undeterred, Cassatt arranged private study with painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. After receiving her education in Spain, Belgium and Holland in the early 1870s, she settled permanently in Paris in 1874. She became a friend of painter Edgar Degas, who invited her to join the Impressionists in 1877. A year later, she painted Children in a Garden (the Nurse).

Cassatt lived and worked in a time when opportunities for women were limited – even for the privileged upper classes, of which she was a member. She is known for her images of the private lives of women, and intimate scenes between mothers and children. “I love to paint children,” she once wrote. “They are so natural and truthful.”

Children in a Garden (the Nurse) carries some of these ideas and also explores another interest: women’s labour in the domestic service. By the mid-1800s when this canvas was painted, women were working in factories and shops, but domestic workers made up the largest sector of urban labour.

In this work, a nursemaid knits while the children she’s caring for play and rest. The figures are set in the background, among lush hedges and carefully tended flowerbeds, captured in a looser brushwork style that was new for the artist.  Cassatt included the painting in the Eighth Impressionism Exhibition in 1886. Visitors to the show would have known the woman’s white cap and apron signalled she was a worker rather than the children’s relative.

The peaceful garden scene captures a rare moment of rest for a domestic worker. Autobiographies from the time indicate their day began around 7 am and ended between 10 and 11 pm. Aside from childcare, they shopped, did laundry and cleaned their employer’s homes. Wages in the mid-1800s for domestic work were low, according to historian James McMillian, an average salary ranged from 35 to 50 francs per month (to put in context: adult admission to the 1878 World’s Fair in Paris was one franc).

Tickets to see Mary Cassatt’s work and more in Impressionism in the Age of Industry: Monet, Pissarro and more are available now at AGO.ca.

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