Women should be someone and not something…


At the end of September I attended the Legion of Honor’s (LOH) Women Impressionist exhibit. The exhibit featured the work of four female Impressionist painters known as the “grandes dames” of the Impressionist movement: Berthe Morisot, Marie Bracquemond, Eva Gonzalez and Mary Cassatt. I have always felt a special kinship to these artists whose paintings I find expressively female. Almost all of their work touches on scenes within the home, mothers and children, or serene colorful landscapes. The exhibit touched on the difference between the male and female Impressionists – how males didn’t have the same social constraints that females faced. The domestic themes of many female Impressionist paintings had nothing to do with what they wanted to paint but what they were able to paint.

Personally, I was very moved by the exhibit. On one level, the art history student inside of me, there is no explanation for being able to see some of your favorite paintings a mere few inches from your face. And on another level, the feminist part of me, I was moved by such a colossal exhibition of female artists. There was a quote of Mary Cassatt’s on the wall that read, “Women should be someone and not something” which I found particularly striking. I felt that if I were to sum up the exhibition in one sentence it would be with that quote. These are women who not only were members of one of the most cataclysmic art movements but were radical within their identity as female artists as well. These women provided biting social commentary on the role of women through their artwork.


I think Berthe Morisot’s “Portrait of Artist’s Mother and Sister” was one of the most telling paintings in the exhibition. The painting presents the mother and sister of the artist sitting peacefully in the home. However there are these undertones of confinement that I strongly felt. The two figures seem cramped within the composition, as if there isn’t enough space, the mother’s black dress overflowing and dominating the bottom corner of the frame. The framing of a painting cuts through the sister’s head in an almost sinister and violent way. The bodies overlap each other and one can barely make out the end of a coffee table as it creeps its way into the painting. Perhaps Morisot isn’t just expressing the contemporary female’s confinement within the home but also the universal limitations for women that have carried over to this day. How many times have I felt limited? Not knowledgeable enough or not strong enough? How many times have I felt judged or taken lightly because I’m a 5’2 19 year old female? But then again perhaps I’m just over dramatic. I can vote, I can be a CEO of a company, choose my own husband, walk out in public with my thighs showing, and if not at least I can make a lot of money by suing the people who deny me those rights. When Berthe Morisot died the occupation on her death certificate read: None.

If I were to make an impact on the world my only wish would be that my death certificate reflect that.

Image 1 – “The Child’s Bath,” Mary Cassatt. 1893. Source: http://static.howstuffworks.com/gif/paintings-by-mary-cassatt-6.jpg

Image 2 – “Portrait of Mother and Sister of Artist ,” Berthe Morisot. 1869/1870.  Source: http://www.dl.ket.org/webmuseum/wm/paint/auth/morisot/reading.jpg


~ by tamgolan on October 31, 2008.

39 Responses to “Women should be someone and not something…”

  1. That picture is nice I coped it for my art class.

  2. Beautiful post.
    No other words are needed,

  3. Very touching image. ‘it shows your love and affection of a mother & child’ very lovely

  4. faboules amazing ,its awesome.and fantastic

  5. its really really my mind mad a more many more open from after see this picture,its a mind blowing ,

  6. The baby taking Bath is so lively its just like taking a photo,
    Madam Mary Cassatt is great..

  7. very interesting post. Myself a woman and an impressionist artist, though from India, felt a deep connection to the art you described so eloquently.

  8. seni sevi yarum aşkım canım

  9. Interesting article, but sad wish:

    If I were to make an impact on the world my only wish would be that my death certificate reflect that.

  10. LOng live woman and their quest to be their full and best selves.

    Howard Koor

  11. Nice review, I almost forgot what language I was reading. I was just curious as always but I liked your perspective of the Portrait. Those minutes where worth it. We’ll change the world I hope.

  12. Sadly it seems that nowadays both men and women would rather be something than someone…

    choosing well paid, rather than meaningful careers.

  13. wow…I liked this

  14. goooogoooogagagoooogoooogaga will one day turn into hahahahahahahahahahaha which will one day turn into an evil world domination………. and we will all die

  15. I stumbled on this but I have to say that women ARE some thing. Your young feminist mind can not comprehend those women who CHOOSE to stay home and take care of their children. They are true someONES. The pictures I see here are not because they were locked away in their houses, but rather, especially the ones with children, have such a beautiful subject matter.

    I think that your modernist schooling has clouded your mind – it sounds as if you think that these women were in prisons.

    • I apologize if my entry seemed to suggest that women who choose to stay in the home are somehow inferior or victims of some sort of vast male conspiracy. That is not what I meant. There is nothing wrong with choosing to be a stay at home mom and as I come from a large family of five children I know how beautiful it is to raise a child and hope to one day raise my own large family. What I am against is preventing women from having any other options. These women artists are from the 19th century where there were laws that prevented single women from being in the streets unaccompanied by a male companion. I’m not saying that all these women were prisoners of European etiquette – but there are letters published by these women artists I talk about who describe these feelings of imprisonment and the unfairness of their situation as women. And even when these women did go against propriety and became reputable artists they still were not taken seriously (because they were women) by most of society as exemplified by Berthe Morisot’s (an accomplished artist who showed her work in many of the Impressionist exhibitions) death certificate which read that she had “No Occupation.”

  16. Oh, I forgot to add: I’m a 34 year old working mother of 5 children. My husband stays at home with them and homeschools.

  17. The artistry depicts the restrictiveness of society which features upon the generational social pecking order of that day. The narration strongly suggests the ornative qualities expected of them, which was to be seen, and, not heard. The facial qualities, and dress compliments their soulful personalities.
    At least today, we choose who we wish to be, and there are not so many sanctions imposed.
    The painting is formidable, and chilling.

  18. These paintings are touching and beautiful. The suffering that women have endured is cold. I only wish I could meet the artists…

  19. You all ought to thank socialism/fascism for liberating females. By destroying the family wage government interventionism has forced most families to have two breadwinners in order to survive. This has done more than any bra burning ever accomplished. But when will you stop acting like victims?

    • I will stop acting like a victim when: women earn equal pay as men, men stop hollering at me when I walk down the street, museums make an effort an equal amount of works by male and female artists, male superiors in the workplace stop calling me “doll” “sugar”etc, my gender doesn’t affect whether a man takes me seriously or not, hip hop/rap artists can no longer get away with using disgustingly derogatory and abusive language towards women in their songs, the glass ceiling shatters, and the list goes on.

  20. Hi there, thank you so very much for sharing this wonderful picture of a little girl getting a bath while sitting on her mother’s lap.
    I grew up knowing I was not wanted by either parent and was raised by an abusive mother who seldom “snuggled” with me.
    I had a book as a child that had a copy of this wonderful painting in it and I spent much time wishing I had a mother like the one depicted here.
    Today I am a grandma of 7 and love nothing more than to snuggle with my precious little ones.
    Through therapy and God’s love, I have become the mother and grandmother I wished for me.
    Again, thank you for posting this beautiful picture, it is like visiting an old friend, what a blessing.
    With gratitude,
    Yvonne Baxter,xxxx

  21. i like your art work.

  22. I love Mary Cassatt! I saw a Cassatt exhibit in D.C. and it blew me away. The above painting of the mother bathing her child took my attention first when I entered the room.
    Thank you for posting this.

  23. Hi…I just came upon your post because today is, apparently, Mary Cassatt’s birthday, as Google just informed me. I clicked and your post came up under image search.

    I am a fellow feminist and really enjoyed reading your post. If it makes you feel better, there *are* people out there changing things, and despite comforting ourselves by saying things like ‘I can be the CEO of a company’, there are many, many discouraging factors out there to dissuade us from becoming such – how many female CEOs are there? Who are our role models? What is encouraged in the classroom (math and science for boys, the humanities for girls). Sexism is still alive in our society, but people like you and me can change that. 🙂 I have an internship this summer with NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, advocating for pro-choice legislation. It won’t change everything, but it will be at least a step in the right direction. Keep hoping. We’re in this together. 🙂

  24. sencillamente hermoso!

  25. sao mto bonitas ,impressonate………….

  26. i did too!!! i love that picture….

  27. I love how google changes their pics and recognizes great works of art achievement and life.

    What is your favorite thing about this artwork specifically?

    Mine is the water and foot connection


  28. We are,just,someone.I´s very,very nice.

  29. I’m happy to find your blog by this journey to this artist in Google ! I hope to read you sometimes …

  30. Make the most of experiences that tell you “you are someone”
    Remember them and build your character around them especially if they involve helping someone elase. Kindness and sharing helps.

  31. yo wat up?

  32. “The framing of a painting cuts through the sister’s head in an almost sinister and violent way.” I think you are reaching here…. Most people who sit on couches that have paintings or mirrors behind them look the same way. I agree with your other assessments of the painting, but the frame thing is just ridiculous…it reminds me of a lame DaVinci Code line.

    • In defense of my analysis – I agree that there are other paintings where the subject is sitting in front of a painting or mirror in a similar way. However, I felt that combined with the intentional crowding of all the furniture – the end table cropped and cramped in the frame, the claustrophobic overlapping of subjects etc – it doesn’t seem to far fetched that Morisot purposefully used the frame in the manner which I described.

      Also if you read other analyses by scholars (usually feminist) you will find that others draw similar conclusions.

  33. You make striking observations about the elemeents in “Portrait of Artist’s Mother and Sister.” Thank you for sharing.

  34. Umm, I like your post but I don’t agree with your comment that the domestic scenes in the impressionist paintings had nothing to do with what they wanted to paint, but rather what they were able to paint. Don’t be lured into the idea that nobody would paint domestic scenes unless they had to; domestic concerns are no less worthy of the objective eye than French prostitutes or a rarefied table and bed in the corner of a room.

    • I didn’t mean it to sound as if nobody would paint domestic scenes unless they were confined to it. I was just trying to make a play on words to enforce the idea that these women were only painting domestic/garden/still-life scenes because they weren’t allowed to paint anything else. L’Ecole des Beaux Arts did not admit women students until 1897 and therefore women could not receive the artistic training to paint historic paintings, nudes, etc. I personally love the interior scenes of all these women Impressionists – however I think it’s interesting to consider what they might have painted if they were men.

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