Symbolism In The Sisters By Mary Cassatt

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In much of her work, Mary Cassatt explores the politics of gender and ‘the gaze.’ Born in Philadelphia to a wealthy family, Cassatt settled in Paris in 1866 and became actively involved with the Impressionist movement, finding inspiration in the works of Manet and Degas. However, during this time equality between men and women was seemingly absent: whilst men were encouraged to pursue a career, women were often confined to domestic life, deprived of many personal and social freedoms. By choosing not to marry and instead focusing on her painting, Cassatt herself went the conventions attributed to women, something which is reflected in her artwork. In The Sisters, completed around 1885, Cassatt alludes the patriarchal values of late nineteenth …show more content…
Although the depiction given is highly Impressionistic, the white dress itself remains an important symbolic presence within the painting. As an artist who focuses on the subject of women and children, especially within upper-class circles, the girls’ clothing functions as a symbol of both their bourgeois upbringing and of their gender. Possibly drawing inspiration from the work of Degas, such as his Two Ballet Dancers, the luminous stokes of white paint found in the girls’ clothing suggest an innocence and vitality which one would associate with childhood. However, when one considers the extent to which the motif of the white dress recurs in Cassatt’s work, it seems to become an emblem of female subjugation. An example of this can be seen in Reading Le Figaro, a work from 1883, in which Cassatt paints her mother reading in a white dress. By depicting an older woman whose only escape from domestic life comes in the form of a newspaper, Cassatt alludes to female subordination, as an intelligent woman’s potential is shrouded beneath the façade of femininity. Considering the oppressive nature of the white dress, its presence within The Sisters possibly echoes the entrapment of the bourgeois woman; however, Cassatt also challenges these negative ideas. To build tone within the swathes of fabric, the artist works with agile strokes of blue and brown paint to create the impression of shadow and light. On a symbolic level, the juxtaposition of these earthy tones with the lustrous white of the dress could be interpreted as an attempt to overcome the confinement of the female figure, alluding to a more natural, less contrived way of life. Moreover, whilst the application of white paint is extensive, it lacks the thickness of the surrounding landscape, creating a sense of transparency which symbolises the meaninglessness of

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