Mary Cassatt, who is best known for her enduring images of mother and children, is never thought of as a Bloomer girl or a free-love advocate. Yet in her 1893 mural Modern Woman she illustrated the most progressive and radical program of women's emancipation yet advanced. This program was first articulated in the 1848, "Declaration of Sentiments," drawn up by women participants at the first convention of women's rights in Seneca Falls, New York. The organizer was Elizabeth Cady Stanton whose writings and speeches for the next half century changed the lives of thousands of women who sought professional training and the ability to lead independent lives. Stanton's accomplishments and that of other leading women's rights advocates were reflected in the art and displays placed in the Woman's Building at Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Among the most important was Cassatt's mural located in the south tympanum of the building's Gallery of Honor. Appropriately title, Modern Woman, Cassatt's mural was a contemporary allegory which she related in three panels: "Young Girls Pursuing Fame," "Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge or Science," and "The Arts, Music, Dancing." These panels, understood as symbolizing women's quest for knowledge and fame and their ability to function effectively apart from men, represented, collectively, the new ideals of modern women. This paper will be illustrated with photographs of the Women's Building and Cassatt's now-lost mural.
Sally Webster, a writer in residence in the Library's Wertheim Study, is Professor Emerita of American Art at Lehman College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. An authority on public art, her most recent book is Eve's Daughter/Modern Woman: A Mural by Mary Cassatt.
Search for other lectures from the Wertheim Study.
See details on the related exhibition, Daring Methods: the Prints of Mary Cassatt.