Have you visited our current exhibition Across the Atlantic: American Impressionism through the French Lens? While the works featured are overwhelmingly landscapes, one gallery focuses on figurative works, including several portraits of and by women. Interspersed between beach and snowscapes, the sitters’ white dresses might have been easy to miss, but seen one-after-another, the informal portrait gallery looks like a cotillion! The color white has many obvious associations on its own—purity, cleanliness, propriety, but these associations are heightened when considered in terms of women’s fashion. The whiteness of a wedding dress, for instance, has a certain social (and sometimes economic) value, particularly in the Victorian and Edwardian periods during which many Impressionist works were painted. The paintings in this gallery by Robert Reid, Cecelia Beaux, and others are aesthetically stimulating, but also inspire new interpretations when their sitters’ fashions are considered.
For instance, Summer Breezes by Robert Reid functions as a portrait of a woman on its surface, but the title reveals its true focus: the feeling of a breeze as it grazes your skin on a warm, summer day. The female figure’s face is quite blurred in an Impressionistic manner and de-emphasizes her individual identity. Her gauzy white dress, in keeping with fashion and the outdoor summer setting, seems here to be merely a device through which Reid can effectively convey the movement of the breeze; its color also complements the perfectly blue sky in a manner similar to the clouds. Across the gallery, John Sharman’s Interior depicts the ideal modern woman from the perspective of a male gaze: quiet and reserved.
The portraits by women in the galleries—a painting by Cecilia Beaux and two etchings by Mary Cassatt, are examples of works by “New Women” that therefore give a different view from their male contemporaries. Encouraged by the changing social norms and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, some women (of privilege) began to choose life outside domesticity and motherhood. Instead, women like Beaux and Cassatt committed themselves to their careers as artists, remaining unmarried. Mary Cassatt lived as an ex-pat in Paris exhibiting alongside Impressionists in 1879, 1880, and 1886. Cecilia Beaux, who became the first woman to have a regular teaching position at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, had a prolific career as a portrait painter. Her colleague William Merritt Chase claimed she was the best woman painter that ever lived—unfortunately “woman” remained a qualifier to her achievements.
While many portraits of women in white dresses seem to affirm notions of propriety and reserve as the women sit in gardens or quiet domestic settings, we also know suffragettes redefined the meaning of white clothing as they marched in white dresses to demand voting rights. Women in the twenty-first century continue to reclaim white as a marker of political assertiveness, wearing white in unity to mark their entrance into Congress. Next time you visit Across the Atlantic, take a closer look at the portrait gallery; the women of 1900 may be closer to you than they seem.
—Olivia Johnson, LSU Art History MA ’20 and LSU MOA Curatorial Assistant