Publication Date

April 2019


Katherine Kuenzli


Art History


English (United States)


The teenage girl, no longer a child, but not yet a fully formed woman, emerges as a distinct subject matter in nineteenth-century French art. This stage of adolescence unfolds as a relatively new subject for modernist, and particularly Impressionist, painting around 1870 through the 1920s. As the sole American and one of few female artists to participate in the Impressionist exhibits, Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) adopted a remarkably distinct approach to painting female adolescence. “Mary Cassatt, Impressionism, & La Jeune Fille: Defining 19th Century ‘Girlhood’” positions Cassatt and her artwork in relationship to emerging discourses on modernity and adolescence in the fields of modern art and modern psychology, both in France and the United States. The adolescent girl, for Cassatt, was a studied portrait; she was the artist’s construed embodiment of a composite of influences, that ranged from American reform movements to the studios of French Impressionist painters. As this thesis explores, the concept of female adolescence was pervasive among American psychologists, notably G. Stanley Hall, as well as feminist educators and reformers, including Theodate Pope Riddle and Mary Hillard Robbins. These individuals were a part of Cassatt’s circle, as revealed in the artist’s correspondence. By connecting her work to broader scientific and social developments, this thesis presents her work as engaged in public issues and debates beyond her family and beyond the home. It places Cassatt’s paintings in a context that goes beyond biography. In so doing, it seeks to recover the independence of her work and ideas. Cassatt was an unconventional woman, but the unconventional nature of her paintings has not yet been fully understood. This thesis proposes to do so by examining the intersection of modernity, modern aesthetics, and constructions of adolescence.



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