Women Artists: Les Femmes Impressionnistes: Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzales, Berthe Morisot

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Les Femmes Impressionnistes: Mary Cassatt, Exa Gonzales, Berthe Morisot. Paris: Musee Marmottan. 1993. 171 pp.; 83 color ills., 116 b/w. Fr 250.00. Exhibition dates: October 13, 1993--January 15, 1994

Tamar Garb. Sisters of the Brush: Women's Artistic Culture in Late Nineteenth-Century Paris. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994. 215 pp.; 62 b/w ills. $45.00

A recent exhibition at the Musee Marmottan brought before an enthusiastic Parisian public over ninety oils, pastels, and drawings by Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot, and Eva Gonzales. At a time when scholarship on women artists in late nineteenth-century France has grown exponentially, Les Femmes Impressionnistes offered a rich visual counterpart to feminist studies that have focused new attention on the dominant social and ideological forces that helped to shape these painters' work and its often gendered critical reception. A strong showing of paintings by Gonzales allowed the exhibition a moment of revelation as well. Long marginalized by scholars as little more than a beautiful model and dutiful student of the painter Edouard Manet, Gonzales emerged at the Marmottan as an artist of remarkable, if at times uneven, gifts, many of which were not fully realized at the time of her death in 1883 at the age of thirty-four.(1) Given the highly specific scope of the exhibition, and perhaps even more, the provocative new attention it focused on Gonzales, the handsome accompanying catalogue proved disappointing. Three often-quoted essays by critics of the period--in themselves noteworthy (especially Stephane Mallarme's superb preface to the catalogue of the 1896 Morisot exhibition at Galerie Durand-Ruel) but historical artifacts nonetheless--provided the exhibition with its only critical readings. Thus, a significant opportunity for scholarly debate was not only lost but seemed pointedly avoided.

With the exception of two important paintings on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago (e.g., fig. 1), the Marmottan's selection of works by Mary Cassatt was drawn largely from French collections and presented a rather predictable view of her rich oeuvre. The exhibition concentrated on the painter's maternite images from the 1890s and early twentieth century, and thus defined Cassatt once more in terms of the subject that shaped her public identity as an unmarried female artist even during her lifetime. While some of the most interesting recent criticism on Cassatt has in fact emphasized her subtle refiguration in the maternite' paintings of traditional constructions of femininity, feminine sexuality, and painter-subject relationships, there was little evidence of such important new scholarship in the cursory catalogue notes.(2) Similarly, although the paintings of Berthe Morisot on exhibit allowed a more comprehensive view of her oeuvre, they were approached in the limited terms of stylistic biography in both the exhibition and catalogue, and thus rather little was added to our understanding of her work or the cultural and historical contexts it reflects.(3)

Despite such crucial shortcomings, Les Femmes Impressionnistes is bound to stimulate a salutary shift in the critical fortunes of Eva Gonzales. The shadow of Manet was inescapable in he first large room of the exhibition, which was dominated by Gonzales's impressive and best-known work, Une Loge aux Theatre des Italiens (fig. 2). (Fig. 2 omitted) However, the sensitive, solo presentation of her major oil paintings as a whole made it difficult, from the very outset of the exhibition, to accept the dismissive attitude long adopted by her critics.(4) Le The (cat. 24), for which Gonzales's sister Jeanne posed, is an early interior genre piece executed in a tight realist style and probably dates from Gonzales's brief tenure as a student of Charles Chaplin, a fashionable academic painter who would later teach Mary Cassatt. Yet Gonzales's intimate domestic scene, in which her genteel subject is enframed and contained by small, intricately carved furniture, delicate molding, and the "emblems of gender" typical of such popular parlor scenes--e. …