Accepting my Home
I was aghast when my Uncle Brian (also a talented painter and illustrator) likened my work to that of Mary Cassatt. This comparison stopped me in my artistic tracks and I didn't go to my studio for months. If you're not familiar, Mary Cassatt is a late 19th century painter associated with the Impressionist movement; made known by Monet, Degas and other contemporaries that chose to move away from tight realism to playful line and expressive pure colors. Cassatt's main subject matter was mother and children and the intimacy between them, and despite her looseness with paint that put her among the impressionists, her rendering of the human figure was realistic and accomplished. Ok, so why was I so appalled with this comparison? Isn't this how someone might describe my work?
The reason was sentimentality. Her work hits me like Hallmark movie. Her paintings are plastered on many calendars and "Thank You" stationary that every woman has been gifted at least once. Her work is easy to like and seems to target only women, so I saw it as weak and trivial. I was being compared to this popular notion of benign feminity and it bothered me. I've since realized my own biast.
The following are examples of paintings I have completed of my children that I have exhibited, and may be culprits to why one might compare my work to the 19th century master.
I had given into a sexist narrative and lost sight of what Mary Cassatt's popularity really meant - what she meant to women in her field at her time. While others were painting grand scenes of war or religion or romantic landscapes of greek gods, she was lifting up the careers of average women. Cassatt was never a mother herself but she observed it and admired it. She saw the less triumphant struggles and beauties of "woman's work" and put it on display as if it mattered. I also have given my life to what is deemed as "woman's work" and if that's what my artwork is telling the world, why should I be ashamed? Even my sweet unassuming uncle was aknowlegding the beauty in it, and I was defensive and repulsed.
In the next few months I decided to embrace it. I painted my children and my life the way I saw it. After all, during the pandemic that was all I was seeing - my life without a public job and with three children. If what I was seeing in the every day, was considered sentimental sludge, so be it. One can only paint what one knows, unless he or she risks accusations of voyerism or untruth.
Another benefit in accepting my fate as a painter of the domestic, is that my children are models without a schedule - available bodies at my disposal without compensation. Although they are undeveloped human beings, they have the same complexities to their forms which help to improve my rendering of skin covered muscles and bones. The human body is so complex, I feel like I will forever be learning how to master its complexities in paint.
I still don't know why I feel that painting my children is "less than" but its what I have at the moment. They are in my personal landscape and they are no less important than fully formed humans. I think I'm more worried about people thinking I'm sentimental (likening my work to an Anne Geddes photo) because its usually a woman's attribute and I was a daddy's girl who hoped to be his boy. No matter what my subject is, I'm trying to be my best as a painter and should be satisfied with this.