Women Artists

Mary Cassatt’s Feminist Mural Which Has Gone Missing

Magda Michalska 22 May 2022 min Read

Mary Cassatt was a well-known Impressionist who often illustrated motherhood and traditional female activities in the 19th century. When she was 50, she received a commission that shed new light on her entire oeuvre: a mural presenting a modern woman.

Central panel from Cassatt's mural. Scanned from a photo in Harper's New Monthly Magazine 86.516 (May 1893):837.
Mary Cassatt, Modern Woman, central panel, Woman’s Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and Fair, Chicago, IL, USA. Scanned from a photo in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, May 1893.

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 feet (17,6 x 3,6 meters) mural for the north tympanum over the entrance to the Gallery of Honor in the Woman’s Building, which was to showcase the advancement of women throughout history.

Mary Cassat, Modern Women, mural in situ, Women's Building at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and Fair, Chicago, USA. University of California, San Diego, CA, USA.
Mary Cassatt, Modern Woman, mural in situ, Woman’s Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and Fair, Chicago, IL, USA. Inside the Woman’s Building: Allegories of Modern Women, Roan Barriss, Radford University, Radford, VA, USA.

Cassatt’s work on Modern Woman faced a complementary mural on Primitive Woman created by Mary Fairchild MacMonnies. It depicted women at an early stage of the development of civilization.

Mary Fairchild MacMonnies, Primitive Woman, mural in situ, Women's Building at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and Fair, Chicago, USA. The University of California, San Diego, CA, USA.
Mary Fairchild MacMonnies, Primitive Woman, mural in situ, Woman’s Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and Fair, Chicago, IL, USA. Inside the Woman’s Building: Allegories of Modern Women, Roan Barriss, Radford University, Radford, VA, USA.

When Cassatt received this commission in 1892, she wrote to Louisine Havemeyer, explaining why she decided to take it up (hint: to annoy her friend, Edgar 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.

Mary Cassatt, in a letter to Louisine Havemeyer, Women Building History: Public Art at the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

Mary Cassatt, Women Pursuing Fame, left panel of Modern Woman, Women's Building at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and Fair, Chicago, USA.
Mary Cassatt, Young Girls Pursuing Fame, left panel of the mural Modern Woman, Woman’s Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and Fair, Chicago, IL, USA. Inside the Woman’s Building: Allegories of Modern Women, Roan Barriss, Radford University, Radford, VA, USA.

Her work is highly allegorical and alludes to the Bible (women picking the fruit of knowledge), as well as to art history and masters such as Sandro Botticelli. It is a triptych whose central panel, Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge or Science, was inserted between the panel of Young Girls Pursuing Fame (on the left) and Arts, Music, Dancing (on the right), which featured young women engaged in the arts.

Mary Cassatt, Arts, Music, Dancing, right panel of Modern Woman, Women's Building at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and Fair, Chicago, USA.
Mary Cassatt, Arts, Music, Dancing, right panel of the mural Modern Woman, Woman’s Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and Fair, Chicago, IL, USA. Inside the Woman’s Building: Allegories of Modern Women, Roan Barriss, Radford University, Radford, VA, USA.

Cassat’s mural had a feminist feel to it as it presented contemporary women passing the knowledge to new generations, women creating art, 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.

Mary Cassatt, Modern Woman, c. 1893. Wikimedia Commons (public domain). Detail.
Mary Cassatt, Modern Woman, c. 1893, colored photograph of the mural, Woman’s Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and Fair, Chicago, IL, USA. Wikimedia Commons (public domain). Detail.

This combination was too much for the contemporary audience and Cassatt was heavily criticized (including by her friend, 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.

Recommended

Black Female Artists - Kara Walker Women Artists

Five Black Female Artists You Should Know

From the Venice Biennale to the Turner Prize to museums and gallery representation, Black female artists are gaining more and more popularity in the...

Carlotta Mazzoli 1 February 2023

Women Artists

Can You Imagine the Story of Art Without Men? Katy Hessel Did It for You

The Story of Art Without Men turns traditional art history on its head. Katy Hessel opens our eyes to hundreds of female artists previously overlooked or dismissed. This brilliant book places women front and center, and the results are magnificent!

Candy Bedworth 30 January 2023

Self-portrait of a Caucasian woman at her easel, leaning back in her chair looking at the viewer. On her easel is a painting of man happily playing the violin. The artist is wearing a purple dress with white collar ruff and cap. Dutch Golden Age Women Artists. Women Artists

Judith Leyster: The Lead Star of the Dutch Golden Age

Judith Leyster was a highly regarded genre painter in 17th-century Holland. Her career was cut short by her marriage, and after her death, her...

Catriona Miller 30 January 2023

Marlene Dumas, Betrayal, 1994, private collection, courtesy of David Zwirner, New York. Installation view, Marlene Dumas. open-end at Palazzo Grassi, 2022. Photo by Marco Cappelletti con Filippo Rossi © Palazzo Grassi © Marlene Dumas. Women Artists

The Sublimity of Marlene Dumas’ Portraits in Venice

On view until January 8, 2023, the exhibition Open-End, curated by Caroline Bourgeois for Palazzo Grassi in Venice, is a kaleidoscope of faces and...

Carlotta Mazzoli 15 December 2022