Mary Cassatt was an Impressionist and post-Impressionist painter covering individuals -- especially women and children -- at a time when their role in society at large was becoming more prominent and self-assured. Like herself on the world stage, Cassatt's female subjects demanded attention and investigation, and by looking at one of her works, The Boating Party, in more detail along with some critical information regarding Cassatt and Impressionism in general, it will be possible to see how her choice of subject and style reveal the changes occurring in French society at the end of the nineteenth century, especially as they relate to the representation and centrality of women.
Before considering The Boating Party in more detail, it is useful to begin with a brief examination of Mary Cassatt's earlier life and works as a means of placing this study in a historical and scholarly context and of demonstrating how this particular painting reveals the changes occurring even within the artist's lifetime. Cassatt was not identified alongside the Impressionists until 1877, when she was asked to be part of an exhibition alongside them, although her paintings had been displayed publicly since at least 1868 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997). In addition to painting in the Impressionist style herself, with "an interest in the rehabilitation of the pictural qualities of everyday life, inclining towards the domestic and the intimate rather than the social and the urban," Cassatt "was a great practical support to the movement as a whole, both by providing direct financial help and by promoting the works of Impressionists in the U.S.A., largely through her brother Alexander" (Pioch, 2002).
This detail is important to understand, especially considering that the key painting for this study is Cassatt's The Boating Party, because both her style and the content of this painting have their origins in the Impressionist movement, to the point that one may see a direct connection between The Boating Party and Manet's Boating, because "although Manet never took part in the exhibits arranged by these radical young artists -- who would soon be known as the Impressionists -- he came to be seen as the 'father' of the new movement" (Lewis & Lewis, 2009, p. 369). Indeed, Cassatt told her biographer that her feelings regarding being asked to exhibit with the Impressionists were as follows: "I had already recognized who were my true masters. I admired Manet, Courbet, and Degas. I hated conventional art" (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997).
However, Cassatt's work should not be regarded as mere imitation of these earlier and contemporaneous artists, but as an application of Impressionist styles and techniques towards the representation of new subjects and themes. In fact, by comparing The Boating Party to Manet's Boating, one may see the fundamental shift which has occurred in the gap between the two, as Cassatt's image gives a special prominence to the mother and daughter as opposed to the boatman who is the focus of Manet's painting. A more detailed contrast will be useful, but for now one must necessarily begin with a description of Cassatt's painting itself in more detail.
The Boating Party was painted across the years 1893-1894, following a period of intense interest in Japanese woodblock printing, which influenced Cassatt's later work and is represented in "the high horizon, off-center placement of figures, elimination of unnecessary detail, and preoccupation with surface patterns and contours" of The Boating Party (National Gallery of Art 2011). The influence of Japanese art on Cassatt's work is important to understand, because it precipitated the shift from strictly Impressionist forms of representation to the unique style embodied in her later work. According to the National Endowment for the Humanities, "in the late 1880s, […] she fell under the influence of Japanese prints and dramatically altered her own style of painting […] abandoning the feathery brushwork, pastel colors, and insubstantial forms of Impressionism, Cassatt began to create bold, unconventional patterns of flat color and solid forms" that constitute the composition of The Boating Party (NEH, "The boating party").
The image in The Boating Party is of a woman and small child riding in a small boat, with the form of a rower with his back to the viewer. The woman sits facing the viewer, holding the baby somewhat awkwardly on her lap. Although the form of the rower takes up nearly the entirety of the lower right quarter of the image, the eye is drawn instinctively towards the image of the woman, as the dark clothing and turned back of the rower cause him to recede from psychological dominance, leaving only the bright form of the woman in the center of the frame. As the National Gallery of Art notes in its summation of the work, "The composition of The Boating Party is […] unconventional and arresting," because "the darkly clad figure of the boatman looms large in the foreground, almost appearing to project out of the canvas" while "the sail at left, the oar, and the bow of the boat all point to the head of the child who, in a pose typical of the artist, is shown sprawling gracelessly, yet naturally, in its mother's lap" (NGA, 2011).
Before considering the shifting and multifaceted meaning created by this image and its ambiguously related figures, it will be worth briefly examining Manet's earlier work, Boating, as a means to point out the shift in both style and content which marked Mary Cassatt's development as a painter. In this way, it will be possible to demonstrate how Cassatt's work reflects the evolving society of France and the world over the course of her life.
Manet's Boating, painted in 1874, is immediately recognizable as Impressionism, more so than the stark colors and blocky composition of The Boating Party. In Manet's painting of a couple boating, both figures are seen relaxing, leaning back against the sides of the boat while the swirling blues and whites of the water pan out behind them. The boat is a rich brown that serves to frame the bright figures of the white-clad man and the woman in a purple dress, whereas Cassatt's boat is a bright yellow that cuts across the figures in the form of the oar and a bench, so that where Manet's boat serves to contain the two figures within it, Cassatt's boat separates the man and woman, dividing the image into two halves, of light and dark. In Manet's work the woman is seen in profile while the man faces the viewer; in Cassatt's painting this is nearly reversed, except that the man's face is turned just enough that it remains featureless while the woman sits facing just off to the right of the viewer (perhaps at the man, but also seemingly at whatever scene they happen to be rowing away from). Finally, in Manet's Boating the sail is slack and barely visible, giving the impression of two boaters reclining on a still lake. In contrast, The Boating Party includes a large portion of the sail in the frame, and it serves to demonstrate the motion and speed of the boat and its inhabitants as they cross the body of water on which they are traveling.
Having pointed out the obvious differences between The Boating Party and the Impressionist work which serves as its inspiration, it will now be possible to see what these differences demonstrate about the changing society of the late nineteenth century and how Mary Cassatt's work reflects and embodies this changing society. The most striking differences are the change in the subject, movement and speed, and the actual style itself, with The Boating Party reflecting a combination of Impressionist and post-Impressionist styles. The focus on the face of the woman perhaps reflects the greatest change occurring in society at the time, as Mary Cassatt's own notoriety as one of few female artists is itself embodied in the painting's newfound focus on the woman, as opposed to the male figure.
However, this position of centrality and power is tenuous (as Cassatt herself likely realized), demonstrated by the precarious position of the baby and the woman's seemingly worried gaze. Furthermore, even though the woman remains the focus of the painting, she is hemmed in by the oar and the pieces of the boat, so that "perhaps Cassatt touches on a truth that must have been evident to a woman painter who so closely observed the strictures of late nineteenth-century society; if the woman is elevated and admired, she may also be confined to the shallow space behind the oars, a passive participant without the power to control her own destiny" (NEH, "The boating party").
Even if this is the case, however, Cassatt complicates this interpretation further by including the motion and speed of the boat embodied by the full sail, implying that no matter how precarious the woman's situation, she nonetheless is charging ahead, a far cry from Manet's lackadaisical boaters sitting in an idle expanse of water. In this way, Cassatt's The Boating Party embodies the…