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mary cassatt : painting the modern woman – the latest from exhibition on screen

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Specifically released to coincide with International Women’s Day, the latest film from Exhibition on Screen MARY CASSATT : PAINTING THE MODERN WOMAN is a luminous, fascinating look at the life and times of American artist Mary Cassatt.(1844-1926).

Using voice overs, reconstructions with current day actors and assorted experts and museum curators analysing her work, with luminous closeups at times of chosen pieces ,we follow Mary Cassatt’s life chronologically. We also see the way Cassatt would have made her prints.

Cassatt, born in Pennsylvania in 1844 to a distinguished, cultured, wealthy family, lived much of her adult life in France, to the extent that she became considered a French artist. Cassatt spent years in France and Germany during the 1850’s, where she learnt the languages and expanded her drawing skills.

Upon returning to Philadelphia, in 1861, she enrolled in the  Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, one of the few institutions accepting female students, to study painting, at the age of fifteen. Remember, at this time, painting as a ‘ genuine‘ profession was considered to be them province of  men.

Cassatt returned to Paris to further her art studies – independently studying with Jean-Léon Gérôme, a prominent French painter, and with hands-on learning becoming a Louvre copyist. Not only copying masterpieces, Cassatt produced her own work during her first years in Paris among them Two Women Throwing Flowers (1872). In 1868, her painting A Mandolin Player became her first work to be accepted by the Paris Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

We learn Cassatt was thoroughly familiar with the family life she often portrayed – in 1877 her parents and sister moved to Paris and her two brothers and their families often visited. Cassatt exhibited with such artists as Pissarro, Monet and her close friend Degas who saw Cassatt’s work at the Salon and, in 1877, asked her to exhibit with the Impressionists. Cassatt’s involvement with the Impressionists is a small but important section of her life.

Following the final Impressionist exhibition in 1886, we see how Cassatt’s style advanced, and she favoured a more direct manner, trying other techniques and staying aloof from any particular Art Movement. Her work also started to be exhibited in New York.

Cassatt focused on depicting the lives of the women surrounding her. The delights and hardships of restricted women’s lives of the nineteenth century are remarkably presented, portraying the  often ignored intimate life of households. She is famous for her portrayals of feminine life and motherhood, showing intimacy and the reality of female life at the time, although she never married or had children herself.

Cassatt was a classically trained artist yet she joined the Impressionists in Paris and we see how her work changes and develops and the various styles she was influenced by, in particular Impressionism and Japonoiserie.

She also had a passion for the theatre and opera. Closeups reveal how her work was dynamic in composition and, with a bright colour palette, in some ways quite radical and abstract in approach, changing the way we view women in art. Cassatt was prolific,  producing paintings, prints, pastel and more.

Cassatt lived in an era of stimulating change, with the rise of the Suffragettes and women battling misogyny, demanding to be recognised and fighting for their rights. Is the sunflower in Mother Wearing a Sunflower on her dress linked to the Suffragettes?!

The 1890s became Cassatt’s busiest and most creative era. In 1893, for example, she became known for her mural Modern Woman designed for the Chicago World Fair and located in the south tympanum of the building’s Gallery of Honour.  The mural was a triptych of a contemporary allegory : “Young Girls Pursuing Fame”, “Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge or Science,” and “The Arts, Music, Dancing.”

In 1911, Cassatt was diagnosed with neuralgia, cataracts, rheumatism and diabetes but kept working, but after 1914 she was forced to stop painting as her sight was failing. Her diabetes began to create more serious health problems and she was totally blind by the time she passed in 1926 .

In recognition of her contributions to the arts, France awarded her the Legion of Honor in 1904.

Cassatt’s work is now displayed in several important American museums and nearly a hundred other museums and public galleries throughout the world.

Running time just over 90 minutes







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