Seeing with Both Eyes: Combining Two Theories of Art Criticism

Modern Woman (Sketch of woman picking fruit), by Mary Cassatt (found at ArtSTOR)

Also titled Young Woman Picking the Fruit of Knowledge at

Date c.1892-93. Oil on canvas.

Gentlemen, I would ask that you simmer down for a bit and allow me to have a word. Mr. Gautier, that means you, too! . . . Thank you. Now then, as odd and unbelievable as this may sound, you should know that I have transported you both hundreds of kilometers to the west and several decades in the future (to 1895 A.D., to be precise) to discuss matters of art criticism in my London gallery. Mr. H.G. Wells has been so kind as to allow me to borrow his time machine as described in his novella of the same title published earlier this year. A talented American painter and personal friend of mine by the name of Mary Cassatt has allowed me to borrow a few of her recent works for this very purpose. I encourage you to view the paintings on display behind me as I speak so that you will be fairly familiar with them by the time I comment on them in detail.

Before I elaborate upon my own thoughts, let me first review your positions on art’s function in modern society. You, Henri de St Simon, call for three groups of people to forget their quarrels with each other unite against the aristocracy: artists, industrialists, and scientists. Their duty, you say, is to create a positive change in the world by acknowledging each others’ strengths and to understand the artist—whether he may be a producer of poetry and letters, theater, or visual art—as one who uses imagination to spread ideas to the general public in hopes to broaden their intellectual horizons. Only in praising each other can they cast aside their various prejudices (industrialists see no practical use in art and so demean it; artists see now spiritual gain in advancements made for monetary gain, etc.).

On the other hand, we have the opinions of Théophile Gautier, who surely values the work of the artist no less than Henri de St Simon, but does so for very different reasons—which the latter would discredit. As Gautier wrote in his inflammatory preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin, “Someone or other somewhere said that literature and the arts influence morality. Whoever it was, he was a first-class ninny.” Therefore, he takes Henri de St Simon and his followers as idiots for believing that art should be made to influence life, instead arguing that art is an end to itself. He finds pleasure in the useless but beautiful and ugliness in the useful but aesthetically displeasing, and he maintains that a life worth living requires more than making progressive efforts to strive toward a perfect humanity.

Sirs, I understand both of your points and believe them both to be valid in their own rights. I pray that you may hear my words not wholly as a reaction against your opinions—which was definitely the case for Mr. Gautier, who railed directly against Mr. St Simon—but as a rejoining of a single thought that you gentlemen severed in two. You see, you two may see your views as inherently incompatible, but I disagree. To use a metaphor, as both of you have so cleverly done in your own writing, I believe each of you has viewed the discourse of art’s purpose with only one eye open. When you could have examined all of the facts and come up with a larger, more inclusive view of art, you each shut one eye and narrowed your field of vision exclusively to pieces of evidence that supported your theories. In doing so, you simplified the whole truth to something less, thereby losing the full perspective this topic deserves. Instead, I approach the discussion by urging you to open both your eyes, to put the two theoretical halves of art criticism together again, and to see all: to join hands in a combination of theories instead of balling them into fists!

Like Gautier says, art should not necessarily be evaluated for its usefulness to society, but at the same time, there exists finely crafted art which has changed people’s understanding of the world, and that type of art is rightfully worthy of St Simon’s praise. Consider the power Harriet Beecher Stowe’s prose, which enabled the text of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to change the American North’s view of Southern slavery—forcing them to rise to action and crush the legalized injustice against humanity. Consider then the social role of the aforementioned H.G. Wells, whose science fiction writing has helped expand the public’s consciousness of technological feats that might be possible someday—firing the imagination of scientists and fellow artists alike. At the same time, one must not discredit art that has not influenced humanity’s everyday lives, for as Gautier contends, art is worth enjoying for its own sake like a garden of tulips or a jewel.

In an effort to convince you two of my position’s validity (though such a project may not succeed, as I can see that both of you, while patiently listening to my thesis, still scowl and make faces at each other), I now direct your attention to the artworks of Mary Cassatt, an artist born in the States but who studied painting in Paris and moved there permanently in 1872. I trust you have been studying these curious paintings for the last several minutes while I summarized your critical stances as well as my own. Although all of these pieces are worth discussing, I will limit myself to presenting my ideas of just one for time’s sake—as I am sure you have business to attend to in your own respective lifetimes. The painting I now ask you to contemplate is this one in the middle, a two-year-old work entitled Modern Woman (Sketch of Woman Picking Fruit), which the artist created using oil on canvas.

What might have struck you at first is the East Asian influence in the painting—and those that surround it in this gallery. Many late 19th century artists have been intrigued by the Edo-era Japanese woodblock prints that arrived at the Beaux-Arts Academy in Paris in 1890. The foreign sensibility in the woodcuts’ design that values flat compositions and patterned brushstrokes holds a lasting influence in Cassatt’s works.

The subject in her painting wears a pink dress with short sleeves, and by the title, we can guess that the frenzy of diagonal black and brown strokes above her are the sticks, branches, and perhaps leaves of a tree. We know that in a literal sense, her gaze toward the left of the composition views her arm extended upward-and-out in the same direction, and that arm must be picking fruit. The other arm, abstracted due to the artist’s choice to refrain from coloring in the arm, seems to be leaning on the tree’s tilted base to gain a leverage for her other arm to pick fruit. Yet we do not see the fruit because Cassatt places it outside the canvas, and indeed, we cannot really tell what sort of fruit tree it is. This ambiguity and conspicuous use of abstraction in the tree’s characteristics begs the question of what the occasion may be for this painting, if not to show a simple scene of a woman picking a fruit. I propose that an answer to that lies in her act of reaching for an unknown object, her very short hair, the splotches of blue paint creating a glow about her head, and the troubled look signified by her upward-pointing eyebrows.

Because I know you gentlemen are at the moment out of your element and may not know enough historical information to interpret the piece and the artist’s intentions, I should note that Cassatt is among a group of women artists known as “feminists.” (Time traveling a century ahead has allowed me to learn that Cassatt and others of her mindset are considered “First Wave” feminists, paving the way for future generations to establish the Second and Third Waves.) These artists call for radical change in European and American politics to create suffrage and other rights for women so that men may view the opposite sex as equal partners in humanity and so that women’s voices may be heard not just in the domestic sphere but also in the public.

Perhaps as an act of empowering the subject in her painting, Cassatt has depicted the woman from underneath, lending her a position of power above the viewer. The young woman’s short hair imparts an affect of masculinity—that perhaps she has shorn her glamorous, feminine locks in order to become an equal to man instead of an object of his gaze. The blue splotches around her head, you ask? I say they are partly a phantom of her hair that once was and partly function of her anxiety, her conflicted thoughts about modernity that are also reflected in her act of wearing a traditional, womanly pink dress while sporting a close-shaved, manly haircut. True, her arm reaches for fruit, but the visible part of the tree’s absence of fruit indicates a symbolism instead of literality. Instead of attempting to grasp at merely an apple or a pear, she reaches toward the unknown future facing progressive women. Her apprehensive expression betrays the doubts in her mind about her chosen path and reinforces my reading of the blue glow as her anxiety about breaking from tradition. The furious pattern of crisscrossing brushstrokes equated to a tree, which appears to pierce through her shoulder, emphasizes the painting’s flatness and adds a layer of tension. Cassatt has thus used her own interpretation of Japanese woodblock art to craft her own early feminist style.

You see, artists of this new era do not find it sufficient to capture an impression of the physical world in the manner of Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, and others of the Impressionist group. On the contrary, they are ever more finding it necessary to map the human mind upon the canvas—to show a subject’s emotion with elements not found in nature. The result, at least as it pertains to Mary Cassatt’s simultaneously beautiful and political paintings, is a stylistically innovative body of work that pleases the eye and argues for change. Her paintings—and many paintings of artists who are truly great—reach out to the critics who take pleasure in art for art’s sake and those who demand a purpose and an inspirational message. Thus, there is more than one way to evaluate and take pleasure in a work of art. Some apolitical artists may appeal more to you, Mr. Gautier, and other radicals may appeal to you, Mr. St Simon, but painters like Cassatt who work with both viewpoints in mind must not be denied.

With that said, I invite you to ask me any questions you may have and to continue your debate with my viewpoint in mind before my butler escorts you back to 1820s-1830s France. But please, if you will, abstain from starting another shouting match.