Mary Cassatt (1845-1927) was an extraordinary young woman, the daughter of a wealthy Pennsylvania family, who against her parents’ wishes began studying painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, at the early age of fifteen. She made her studies from 1861 through 1865, the duration of the American Civil War. Among her fellow students was the rustic realist Thomas Eakins. She went to Paris to continue the study of painting, since women could not yet attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Cassatt studied privately with the highly regarded master Jean-Léon Gérôme. Cassatt’s early work, Young Bride, with its somber pallet of earth tones is similar in mood to the work of her contemporary Eakins.
The work of Edgar Degas made a powerful impression on Cassatt when she encountered them in an art dealer’s window in 1875. Degas later invited her to exhibit her work in Impressionist show, planned for 1878, which (after a postponement because of the World’s Fair) took place on April 10, 1879. Only three years after Young Bride was painted, Cassatt painted her lovely Little Girl in a an Armchair. Cassatt was not an imitator of Degas or of anybody else. She developed her own distinctive style of precisely defined form, which she combined with impressionist informality of subject and composition. It is customary to say about any woman painter, as if it were the ultimate compliment, that she paints with almost the vigor of a man. But the beauty of Cassatt’s art is its femininity, which in her case is not to be confused with weakness, indecision, or an only partial achievement of a masculine standard. One would not want to “strengthen” Little Girl in a an Armchair any more than one would want to endow its lovely sitter with the muscles of a wrestler.
Regardless of Cassatt’s inventiveness with form, her subject matter remained traditional. Most of her paintings are tender portraits of women and children. Cassatt’s admiration for Italian Renaissance paintings, particularly Sandro Botticelli, inspired Mother and Child. The woman’s adoring look and the boy’s sweet face and contrapposto stance suggest images of the Virgin and Child, a connection reinforced by the oval mirror that frames the boy’s head like a halo. Cassatt’s colleague Degas perceived her references to the Renaissance, telling her that the painting “has all of your qualities and all your faults—it’s the Infant Jesus and his English nurse.” The Havemeyers, who purchased the canvas for their collection, referred to it as “The Florentine Madonna.”
Although contemporary critics usually revere Cassatt for her professional life as an artist, many have difficulty accepting the vitality of her paintings. Often absurd interpretations are made of the works to suit postmodern ideological tastes. When I was enrolled in a humanities program I had to endure courses offered such as, “The Great Mother: Archetype or Stereo-Type?” After years of reflection, I have come to the conclusion that the negative reaction to the warm sentiments expressed in art are symptoms of soul murder. The Swiss psychologist Alice Miller had profound insight into understanding the roots of discord in society. She believed the prominent source of violence was caused by the abuse or neglect of children. To deprive the child of his or her own identity and ability to experience joy in life, is to commit soul murder. In her book For Your Own Good, she gives an account of how a mother can nurture a soul:
Once I was sitting on a park bench in a strange city. An old man, who later told me he was eighty-two, sat down beside me. My attention was caught by the attentive and respectful way he spoke to some children playing nearby, and I struck up a conversation with him….His mother “loved life,” he said. Sometimes in the spring she would wake him up in the morning to go with her and listen to the birds singing in the woods before he went to school. These were his happiest memories, When I asked whether he had ever been given beatings, he answered, “Hardly ever; my father’s hand may have slipped occasionally. That made me angry every time, but he never did it in my mother’s presence; she would never have permitted it. But you know,” he went on, “once I was severely beaten by my teacher. In the first three grades, I was the best pupil, then In the fourth we got a new teacher. One, time he accused me of something I hadn’t done. Then he took me aside and started hitting me and kept on hitting, shouting like a madman the whole time, “Now will you tell the truth?’ But how could I? After all, I would have had to lie to satisfy him, and I had never done that before because I had no reason to be afraid of my parents.”
Miller gave the narrative to illustrate how a child who had the good fortune of a mother who by loving life was able to respect her son’s well-being. The old man’s story reflected that since he was held in such esteem by his mother that he was able to express his feelings and was aware of being angry when his teacher beat him and asked him to tell a lie. Children who are less fortunate, are harshly disciplined by their parents without reason or are neglected. The child who lacks confidence in his or her self to make judgments will grow up to accept figures in authority without question. The child will not be aware of his or her feelings as the old man was as a child. Someone who has renounce feelings at a tender age will have loss the ability to experience pleasure, in turn seek to project their aggression onto an object. Such people who lack a love of life can find an outlet for their frustrations by joining an authoritarian collective. Miller saw that institutionalized abusive child-rearing in Germany was necessary for the development of fascism, she wrote,”Every ideology offers its adherents the opportunity to discharge their pent-up affect collectively while retaining the idealized primary object, which is transferred to new leader figures or to the group in order to make up for the lack of a satisfying symbiosis with the mother.”
An example of the kind academic discourse that surrounds the work of Cassatt can be found in the book Idols of Perversity written by Bram Dijkstra:
“Late nineteenth-century art witnessed a development of the conventional mother-and-child image which directly reflected the new evolutionist dictum that a mother and her children were essentially coextensive and formed a “primitive and natural unity.” These paintings tended to portray a mother and her child, or children, as virtually glued to-gether—jammed into the space of the image as if they were bound together by an almost visible mental and even physical coherence. Sometimes such paintings showed the mother sitting stoically in the center of the image while her brood crawled all over her, sat in her lap, hung on her neck, leaned on her shoulders, and so on, in the fashion of Bouguereau’s Alma Parens. But often, especially in the work of women painters who specialized (as most did) in painting women, this “spiritual conjunction” between woman and child was depicted as if it were a sign of a riveting “intuitive” bond. Many of Mary Cassatt’s works / reflect this specific affectation. For example, her painting Caress shows a mother and her two children, their heads jammed together in such a way that those of the two children and that of their mother seem to have an almost physical bond—as if we have here an entirely new form of Siamese linkage.”
The above passage was taken from the chapter Evolution and the Brain. Dijkstra claims Darwinian theory influenced writers and artists to believe women were less evolved than men, therefore, it was presumed that women should be represented as “brainless” in “their primitive and natural unity”. While there is truth in that Darwin’s bigotry did influence some artists, Thomas Theodor Heine’s painting The Flowers of Evil is a good example, Dijkstra’s reading of Cassatt’s Caress is delusional. I see Caress as an intimate portrait of a mother with two children which may have been inspired by Renaissance paintings of the Madonna. I do not see a portrait with ” heads jammed together” that was painted by Cassatt to appeal to Darwinian ideology which perceived women as “brainless” creatures. Because I had the good fortune to have a loving mother I am able to experience the work without resentment.
Miller believed sanctioned abusive child rearing creates a psychological state in which fascism can prosper. However, I tend to think that the neglect of children is the prominent issue. Ashley Montagu studied the tactile behavior in different cultures and found the contact within families of the United States and Great Britain was much less than in other cultures. The conclusion of the studies was that the amount of contact and expression of love American mothers give their babies and young children was not adequate for their physiological and emotional needs. The mothers observed in a study were more concerned with controlling the behavior of their children then giving affection. Montagu thought that a higher degree of closeness within the family beginning with the mother-child affection would help Americans to feel more anchored in the family. He concluded his book Touching with the following passage:
“The contemporary American family constitutes only too often – an institution for the systematic production of mental illness in each of its members, as a consequence of its concentration on making each of them a “success.” Which, in practice, means that the individual is gradually converted into a device with a built-in design for achievement in accordance with the prevailing requirements, entailing the suppression of emotion, the denial of love and friendship, the ability to trade with whatever serves one for a conscience, while conveying an unvarying appearance of rectitude. Towards this end, parents feel that they -must not give their children “too much” affection, even in the reflex and affectionate stages when children, so much in need of it, literally cannot receive too much affection.”
It should not be a surprise that soul starved individuals who never experienced the necessary level of love from their parents would be swept into postmodern deconstruction to assault tradition and the family. Miller recognized how Hitler was able to manipulate the hatred for the Jews for his own purposes. In our time, technopoly is manipulating a soul starved society’s hatred of the family for its own ends. Current postmodern agendas seem to have a predecessor in the writing of B.F. Skinner who thought autonomous man was a construct which must be abolished for civil order to be maintained in society. Such a program can only be described as fascist. A friend just recommended Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism, it appears Reich supports my argument.
To counteract this destructive trend could not be more difficult. We live in a post-historical age in which people are narcotized by the mass media present. Western culture is rapidly losing touch with its symbols for expression. The only solution I see is to respect the expressions of eternal, ageless, human themes in culture before they are lost.