Mary Cassatt is a well-known Impressionist who often illustrated motherhood and traditional female activities of the 19th century. However, when she was already 50, she received a commission which shed a new light on her entire oeuvre: a mural presenting a Modern Woman.
The story began with the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition And Fair which promoted important achievements in industry, art, and science since Columbus’ arrival in America 400 years before. The Fair took place in Chicago and Cassatt was asked to paint a 58 x 12 foot mural for the north tympanum over the entrance to the Gallery of Honor in the Women’s Building which was to showcase the advancement of women throughout history.
Cassatt’s work on Modern Woman was facing a a complementary mural on “Primitive Woman” created by Mary Fairchild MacMonnies, which represented women at an early stage in the development of civilization of which they represented the refined and most civilized part.
When Cassatt received this commission in 1892 in a letter to Louisine Havemeyer she wrote why she decided to take it up (to annoy Degas!):
I am going to do a decoration for the Chicago Exhibition. When the committee offered it to me to do, at first I was horrified, but gradually I began to think it would be great fun to do something I had never done before and as the bare idea of such a thing put Degas into a rage and he did not spare every criticism he could think of, I got my spirit up and said I would not give up the idea for anything.
Her work is highly allegorical and alludes to the Bible (women picking the fruit of knowledge), as well as to art history and such masters as Botticelli. It’s a triptych whose central panel Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge or Science was inserted between the panel of Young Girls Pursuing Fame and the right panel of Arts, Music, Dancing which featured young women engaged in arts.
The mural had a feminist feel to it as it presented contemporary women passing the knowledge to new generations, women creating arts and women who were ambitiously pursuing their dreams. Moreover, her style was very modern and also quite different from her previous ephemeral and idyllic works.
This combination was too much for the contemporary audience and Cassatt was heavily criticized (also by Degas). To the extent that the panel disappeared right after the fair and has never been found- some speculate it was destroyed while in storage.