Impressionism has been widely accepted as the style that first introduced modernism in art. Modernism in both the techniques used by artists and the subjects represented – mainly the emerging industrial city life. Space –as a reality and as a subject in art- is thus a very important part of Impressionism.
Impressionism also saw the rise of a number of women artists like Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzalès and Marie Bracquemond.
What spaces are represented in the art of women impressionists and is there a difference with the spaces depicted by their male colleagues? This question has been central especially to feminist critique. According to Griselda Pollock the spaces represented by women painters are those traditionally related to the bourgeois women of the period: areas or areas related with acceptable female bourgeois leisure, involving child care (picture 1), pass time and intimate garden scenes (picture 2).
Picture 1. Mary Cassatt, The Bath, 1892, oil on canvas, The Art Institute of Chicago
Picture 2. Berthe Morisot, La Chasse aux papillons, 1874, oil on canvas, 46 x 56 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris
The public sphere was not a space where a woman of the bourgeois class could be seen on her own. The honourable woman was secluded in the domestic sphere and thus the places she depicted as an artist were limited to what was expected from her.
These boundaries of domestic space can be seen in the spatial order of the paintings, which constitute the second way in which Pollock views space and femininity. For Pollock, the space in paintings by women impressionists displays the use of facture, demarcation and compression in order to show the boundaries inside the picture itself but at the same time the boundaries of the city, the boundaries between the domestic and the public. If we came back to Morisot’s and Cassatt’s paintings examined earlier we can see that we, as viewers, enter the world of the bourgeois woman, experience it. But at the same time we are denied any intimacy as those represented avoid any eye contact. In the end, we are invited to a world where women can be observed but they themselves cannot observe.
Pollock, G. 2003, Vision and Difference, London & New York: Routledge Classics