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Mary Cassatt's Lost Mural
 and Other Exhibits at the 1893 Exposition

by K. L. Nichols

Modern Woman Mural
Other Cassatt Exhibits
Variations on Modern Women Motif
Cassatt as Post-Modernist?


Born into a wealthy Pittsburgh family, Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was one of the new breed of nineteenth-century expatriate women who went to Paris to study art and stayed there permanently. Now recognized as one of America's great impressionists, Cassatt was not well-known in America until she was asked to contribute to the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition and Fair in Chicago by painting a 58 x 12 foot mural for the north tympanum over the entrance to the Gallery of Honor in the Women's Building.

Unfortunately, after the Women's Building was later pulled down, Cassatt's mural was lost. However, some photographs were taken and crudely colored prints made of her mural. In addition, while she was creating it in 1892 and for the next year or two, she also made a series of prints and paintings playing variations on the mural motifs.

The goal of the Women's Building was to showcase the advancement of women throughout history. The assigned theme for Cassatt's mural was "Modern Woman." At the opposite end of the Gallery of Honor was a complementary mural on "Primitive Woman" created by Mary Fairchild MacMonnies.

Cassatt designed her mural as an allegorical triptych. The central panel titled Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge or Science (see above) featured contemporary women picking fruit from a contemporary "tree of knowledge" and passing it on to the younger generation. The left panel was an image of Young Girls Pursuing Fame and the right panel displayed young women engaged in activities associated with the Arts, Music, Dancing.

Included below are scans I made of photographs of Cassatt's mural as it was displayed in the Women's Building. There are also images of the other pictures Cassatt exhibited at the 1893 Exposition.

Cassatt's Modern Woman Mural

Left: Girls Pursuing Fame Center: Young Women Plucking the
Fruits of Knowledge or Science
Right: Arts, Music, Dancing

View large size of mural with border here--scroll down the page
to Interior of Women's Building to see the HUGH SIZE of the mural
(58 x 12 feet), although the details of the mural are obscured by the
light.  The three panels were surrounded by a 3-foot-wide,
Renaissance-inspired border.

Central Panel with Wide Borders

Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge or Science (central panel)


Mary Cassatt's Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge or Science.
Central panel of the mural for the tympanum over the entrance to the Gallery of Honor in
the Women's Building at the Columbian Exposition and World Fair, Chicago, 1893.

This image was scanned from a photo in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 86, Issue 516, May 1893, p. 837.


Left and Right Panels

 Young Girls Pursuing Fame (left panel)  

In the left panel, three girls (one in a dark blue dress) reach for "Fame" shown in the upper right corner as a flying female figure whose nudity represents discarding the conventional constraints of society that inhibit accomplishment (especially for girls?). In the left corner is a gaggle of geese, the import of which nobody seems to know, but let me hazard a guess that they represent conventional society "quacking" its disapproval of such unconventional aspirations.

The right panel also features three women--perhaps the three girls grown to adulthood and the accomplishments they sought in the left panel? In the center, a woman plays the banjo (see variations on this motif below). To her left, a woman in a popular-styled "accordian" skirt dances. The woman on the right observes appreciatively.

Arts, Music, Dancing (right panel)     

Possible Colors of Cassatt's Mural

The mural's "brilliancy of color" was often noted--bright yellow-greens, intense blues, deep plum or purple, peach--but not always approvingly by those put off by the "unnatural" colors of the impressionistic palette. (Source: here--scroll down the page). Judged by the colored print below, it is hard to imagine why some critics were so upset by her "vivid hues," but one protested that her "impudent greens" and "brutal blues" "assault" the eye. Another critic referred to the "greenery-yallery" effect, supposedly conjuring up visions of Beardsley and the Decadents. However, as Cassatt herself noted, "I have tried to make the general effect as bright, as gay, as amusing as possible. The occasion is one of rejoicing, a great national fete. . . ."   (Letter to Mrs. Bertha Palmer, President of the Board of Lady Managers, Women's Building.)

1893 print of Cassatt's Modern Woman Mural
(printed by George Barrie).

More neutrally, other critics noted the flat Japanese effect of the middle panel, its red and gold fruit, the vivid green grass, and purple skirts, pink frocks, and (on the right panel) the heliotrope accordian skirt of the dancer.

The wide border around the middle section of the mural--and presumably around all three panels of the triptych--is described as a "rich border" of blue, green, and orange with a dominance of greens, blues, purples.  Some critics pronounced it as "too strong a framing device."


The Allegorical Theme of the Modern Woman

According to art historian Nancy Matthews,

With the help of published reproductions and Cassatt's own words, the mural's meaning becomes clear, particularly when considered in the context of late-nineteenth-century women's issues. For instance, the theme of the central panel, Young women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge or Science, probably alludes to women's recently acquired access to college education. Even more radical, Cassat's depiction of women passing the fruits of knowledge from one generation to the next can be seen as a direct assault on traditional religious interpretations of the Story of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis.

The two side panels, Young Girls Pursuing Fameand the Arts, Music and Dancing expand Cassatt's central thesis. In the left-hand panel three young girls, placed in a landscape setting, chase a flying figure who, according to Cassatt, personifies fame. In its own time, this panel, with its provocative title, was intended to be a frank attack on the notion of young middle-class women as demure and self-effacing, a challenge to the powerful and seductive "cult of true womanhood." In Cassatt's view, girls who sought renown could, through education, fulfill their dreams.

Such achievements are the subject of the right-hand panel, where three self-confident and assured women in modern dress represent the artist, musician, and dancer. Rather than being the creative muses of men, they are accomplished persons in their own right.

Seen together the three panels represent a woman's life cycle--childhood, youth, and maturity--as well as self-fulfillment, a reflection of Cassatt's own experience.

Cassatt ordered new Paris gowns for her models to suggest their "modernity," but the actual models tended to be country women whose robust health Cassatt found more attractive than conventional notions of feminine beauty. Perhaps more "modern" was her contemporary update of the 18th Century "modern" beauties of Japanese printmakers like Utamaro, as well as her avant-garde impressionistic techniques of handling light and color (no muddy browns, for instance). (Read about the influence of Japanese printmakers on Cassatt.)

Cassatt herself felt that her community of independent women was a very modern theme. As she put it in a letter to Bertha Palmer, the President of the Board of Lady Managers for the Women's Building at the 1893 World Fair,

An American friend asked me in rather a huffy tone the other day "Then this is woman apart from her relations to man?" I told him it was.

Other Cassatt Exhibits at the 1893 Exposition

Portrait of a Lady--It is unclear if this image is
the Portrait of a Lady which was exhibited in
the Women's Building, 1893 Exposition

The Parrot, 1889-1890 (drypoint)--
exhibited in Women's Building,
1893 Exposition

French Peasant Woman with a Child
(dry point)--exhibited in Women's Building,
1893 Exposition

Afternoon Tea Party, 1890-91(drypoint and aquatint)--
exhibited in Women's Building, 1893 Exposition

Another Cassatt painting/print at the 1893 Exposition was The Bath, but no more information is available. Therefore, I have included three different "bath" paintings, which also illustrate three different styles in which Cassatt worked. If one of these is the correct Bath, it was exhibited in the Women's Building.

The Bath --about 1890-91
Soft-ground etching with aquatint
and drypoint on paper
Influence of Japanese prints.

The Bath or here,
1891-92, oil painting.
Japanese print techniques adapted
to contemporary European subjects.

The Bath 1892

[ Continue ]

Variations on Cassatt's Modern Woman Motifs--
click here

Cassatt as Post-Modernist?--click here


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These pages are for educational use only.

Text written by K. L. Nichols

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Posted: 6-15-02; Updated: 12-21-12