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Question’inAmericanImpressionistPainting,1880- oryAmerican Impressionism is generally understood as offering a conservativeperspective in terms of its subject matter – an obscuring of the increasing politicalconflict, social turmoil and economic disparities that characterized U.S. society duringthe Gilded Age-- yet modern (for its time) in its technique and methods of representation.As one art historian has written, ofstillness,solitudeandoptimism.”1 Today, the consensus among art historians, as well as the viewingpublic, seems to be that these are lovely paintings—in part because of their subject matterbut also because of style and technique: softened lines, brilliant color, diffused light. 2Yet in the late nineteenth century, American art critics were sometimes enthralled,sometimes repulsed by the new techniques, and art connoisseurs who valued symboliccompositions did not always find the subject matter suitable. Thinking about theskepticism of nineteenth-century viewers might help us to remember that there is nothingintrinsically beautiful or artistic about these paintings and might prompt us to reflect onwhy today we find them so lovely. Is it simply that we no longer find the techniquesoffputting, accustomed as we are to the abstract expressionism that was to follow? Or arewe attracted to the idealism informing these works, seeing in them evidence of a worldwe no longer experience but nostalgically believe once existed? Or perhaps we aredrawn to these paintings because they seem highly symbolic to us— as we can discern in

ingNewman/2them references to European masters, along with new elements/styles from non-westernsources. Finally, do we respond so favorably because we find in them some transcendentmeaning?Many of the works featured in this exhibition use women as subjects in ways thatmoved beyond traditional portraiture or classic nudes. Yet, despite great variations instyle and composition, there is remarkable consistency to these representations of womenand domesticity. Whether situated indoors or in plein air, whether painted in somber orbright colors, whether “realistically” or “impressionisticly” rendered, the female subjectsare often depicted in contented repose—strolling, picknicking, reading, drinking tea,playing music, eating breakfast, embracing children, doing their bedintheirsolitudeorhappily engaged in dailyrituals. As art historian Diane Mancoff has observed of Mary Cassatt’s paintings(offering insights that apply more generally): “insteadofbeingconfining,thesettings [modestlyfurnishedbedrooms,sun- dfulfilledintherichnessofherexperience.”3Is it possible, then, to approach American impressionist painting as a kind ofdocumentary record, offering glimpses into elite women’s lives, or at least into thecultural values that upheld “woman’s sphere” as an ideal? Victorians understood thehome as a realm that women controlled and where they were [supposed to be] happiest,4a realm where men spent much less time as their work and leisure activities increasinglytook place in the “public sphere”—which raises the question of whether contemporary

ingNewman/3men and women responded to these paintings differently, given how different their liveswere.5 It’s a hard question to answer, not least because historians have been able togather more evidence of men’s reactions to impressionism than women’s.6 For example,a French male critic is known to have marveled at howCassatt“succeededinexpressing cinterior,”7 butwould Mary Ead, an American woman, have had the same response, given the profoundisolation and boredom she experienced as a young faculty wife at a small college inCalifornia in the 1890s? Ead, who was well educated and had worked as a teacherbefore she married, describes how she has come to feel about reading and having sthecontrastofadullhome,shefears.”8It is impossible to know how many Victorian women shared Ead’s feelings, butwe do know that extensive discussions about the “woman question” appeared in U.S.print media, beginning in the 1870s and extending into the next century, as increasinglylarge numbers of women voiced dissatisfaction with the confinement of woman’s sphereand sought access to activities and opportunities outside the home that had traditionallybeen denied them.9 As andperiodical,atthedinner- ere,are,willbe,andshouldbeistheconstantquestion .althoughwomengenerallyare

e,middle- senrolled(butjust2.8percentofallwomenage18- womenaged18- ficant,reflectingthesocialchanges affecting American women’s lives at the time, and fueling middle-class women’sincreasing involvement in social and political reform, such as the temperance, labor, andsuffrage terests.12The modern woman desiredan “independent” life, and was severely criticized for being selfish and seeming to refuseto fulfill her social obligation to have children and thereby “advance the race.”13Although tomostcontemporariesitseemedthatbirthrateswere

Inthishighlychargedatmosphere,mostwhitemiddle- ‐andupper- tionlikeart- ‐- fromit- ‐- ndhalfofthenineteenthcentury.MaryCassatt(1844- .16As a documentary record, then, these paintings offer only partial information: wemay glimpse some of the rituals and routines of elite women’s lives-- re)butthereis muchabout these women’s lives that nimpressionistpaintingstonewaudiences.17Noneof

erearesignificantomissions:weneverseehow much effort is involved in householdmanagement and childrearing; nor do we view the labor of working-class women thatmake the lives of privileged women possible—the maid who brings the tea, the nannywho puts the children down for a nap, the cook who prepares the dinner meal-- all theservants, tutors, and nannies who populated these households but are just outside be,theyarenotone- ndRealism:ThePaintingofModernLife,1885- H.Gerdts.AmericanImpressionism

ion,1880- York:Stewart,Tabori&Chang,1998),p.41. Although art critics at the time often felt that womenartists brought a special sensitivity to their subjects (see footnotes 7 and 8 below), I amunable to discern such gender differences when comparing the works of FrederickFrieseke, William Merrit Chase, Robert Reid and Childe Hassam with Mary Cassatt,Lilla Perry or Helen une1895):753- istinL.Hogansonexploreshowmiddle- ‐classandupper- nishmusicroom,Englishdiningroom- ‐- ‐or

Turner(1858- ctionofAmericanDomesticity,1865- 7),pp.13- rner(1858- :E.Weyhe,1926),pp.56- ecialsensibilityinCassatt’swork,“aflutter


ewman,ed.,Men’sIdeas/Women’sRealities,pp.105- :409- ‐417,describesthefive- ‐to- ressingsuchambivalenceformorethanageneration.

307- gherambitionplacedbeforeherthansocialsuccess indoccupations,which,whilebeingmoresoul- thanIthelimitationsofmyownwork adtogoinceaselessstruggling dinInternationalStudio59(July1916):iii. cast.htm(October2004).

The&‘Woman&Question’&in&American&Impressionist&Painting,1880M1920& ByLouiseM.&Newman,&Associate&Professor&U.S.&History& & & American Impressionism is generally understood as offering a conservative perspective in terms of its subject matter – an obscuring of the increasing political