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I next considered Cassatt's mother-child pictures in the context of a book on the visualization of childhood. I was trying to understand how a currently axiomatic assumption of children's absolute innocence had been translated into images that would eventually become the most credible and ubiquitous proofs of that innocence. I did not start with any one author, or a medium, but instead with a question: How has childhood been visualized in modern times? Whatever pictures in

whatever medium by whichever artist—or nonartist—answered that question would be part of the book's argument. I did not care if the pictures were “good” or “bad,” “great” or “trivial,” as long as they answered the question. As far as Cassatt was concerned, the key sentence this time was: “Artists like Stephens, Cassatt, and Potter Vonnoh reinvigorated the subject formally, finding new devices to express the beauty of the innocent child body and the maternal love it inspired.”[9]

Who, Cassatt, and who? My issue-driven project made me realize how little great artists could matter to visual history. At the beginning of the modern history of childhood, in the eighteenth century, painters as eminent and influential as Sir Joshua Reynolds were also the most important innovators in the visualization of childhood. But by the middle of the nineteenth century, the dominant role in shaping cultural concepts of childhood had passed to genre painting, a type of painting whose formal mediocrity has kept it outside an art historical canon based on aesthetics. By 1890, when Cassatt and Morisot both began to concentrate on the subject of mothers and children, no painting of any sort could control or alter the history of childhood. Quite simply, the social scope of the issue was much broader than the audience for modernist painting. Only image makers whose work was repeatedly reproduced on a mass scale could hope to affect an entire culture. Alice Barber Stephens (1858–1932) and Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872–1955), along with others like Jessie Willcox Smith, made childhood innocence a cultural axiom through their commercial work for magazines, advertisements, and various forms of illustration, work consumed by millions of viewers. The commercial and amateur photographs of children that dominated the twentieth century looked back to those commercial artists, not to great painters. Nothing about Cassatt's subject matter was any more original, feminist, or modern than the pictures of mothers and children by women like Stephens, Vonnoh, and Smith, not to mention innumerable reproductions, interpretations, and adaptations of premodern religious Madonnas. Cassatt's pictures are relevant to the history of childhood inasmuch as they are ordinary. (Hence the total irrelevance of Morisot's mother-child pictures, which are much more radical than Cassatt's at the level of subject matter.)

It is of course terribly tempting to reinsert what we can now see in Cassatt's later work back into history. We would like to imagine Cassatt's formal passion radically altering the sentimental history of maternity we have inherited. Our vision of Cassatt, however, belongs to

our time. If even the most ardent admirers of Cassatt's work did not articulate the power of her mother-child pictures until the 1990s, it is because the cultural conditions of the past made such articulation impossible, perhaps even unthinkable. We also forget how the impact of Cassatt's work has benefited over time from a mass reproduction it was not intended for. If Cassatt's mother-child pictures had appeared on as many posters, refrigerator magnets, and mousepads in her lifetime as they have since then, history might have been different.

My historical project made me confront how much Cassatt's choice of subject had been determined by a factor that had nothing to do with her style or her innate genius. I wrote: “Feminine and commercial pressures on women's work were strong enough to be felt by even the most successful fine artists, as evidenced by the career of arguably America's finest late nineteenth-century woman painter, Mary Cassatt.” Most of the very popular and influential images of childhood made since the late nineteenth century have been the work of women. Women were forced to produce pictures of childhood for commercial markets because of their gender. Schools tracked them, editors commissioned them, critics neglected them, patrons paid them. They spent their entire careers on childhood, as if they had never contemplated a viable alternative. The ambient power of culture could, however, overtake even someone successfully headed in another direction. Cassatt refused to become a mother biologically and roamed among various—admittedly feminine—subjects until about 1890, when, despite professional experience, critical acclaim, and financial security, she succumbed to the maternal imperative. In the end, even Cassatt obeyed a historical pattern. History swept the obdurate node of her genius along in its flow.

Cassatt's stylistic meanings may have been revolutionary, but the historical pattern within which they were embedded was politically and culturally conservative. As a subject, maternity gave women new professionally artistic possibilities (Stephens, Vonnoh, Smith, and many others were highly successful by many measures) and it also gave women new power as consumers of images. Yet it hardly needs to be said that any association of women with maternity, however new, would inevitably reinforce traditional definitions of femininity. Cassatt was able to create pleasure out of maternity, but she nevertheless linked pleasure to maternity. Form created pleasure, but subject matter harnessed pleasure. Here we can come back to Cassatt's exhilarating distillation

of her subject from another point of view. Cassatt removed maternal pleasure from any distraction, loosing it from any social restraint. The relationship between mother and baby, according to Cassatt, exists in a world unto itself; it does not belong within any shared or active or collective or political or social world. Yet that freedom from the material world is itself a price to be paid. In Cassatt's vision, maternal pleasure is ours on the condition that we relinquish everything else. The mother who is absorbed in her pleasure, in her fantasy of pleasure, cannot be a part of and act in the real world.

So we are faced with a contradiction. Cassatt was revolutionary and Cassatt was conservative. Cassatt was banal and Cassatt was a genius. Cassatt is crucial to a history of art and marginal to a history of culture that includes art. The contradiction cannot be resolved. One way of looking at Cassatt cannot be reduced to the other.

And why should it be? The study of an individual artist will always be a sure way to yield intellectually sustained and emotionally inspirational formal analysis. In a modern world in which people strive to be individuals, one person's style forces attention to what makes one set of forms different from any other set. It forces precision and articulation. When organized chronologically, it becomes a kind of history, a very specific history of one mode of visual representation. If the analysis of style demands recognition of an object's condition, cultural history demands recognition of its effect. What an art object is needs to be described and judged on formal terms. How and why art objects have mattered to anyone requires analysis of more than what an object is. Cultural analysis requires its own precision, locating changes in meaning over time and from one audience to another, situating discrepancies between authorial intention and reception, between formal quality and cultural importance. The two approaches can complement each other, but they will not necessarily agree. I believe that in practice they depend on each other, but in a theoretical way they cannot be substituted for each other. They elicit different skills, different sources, and different methods—which is why the formalist fear of what is often called “visual culture” studies is absurdly defensive. What I would prefer to call more simply a historical (as opposed to the subset “art historical”) approach will not render formal analysis useless. It can never replace formal analysis and the study of individual singularity. But history does bring another aspect to the study of

images that formal analysis and monographic subjects will never accurately produce.

Do we really need art to be consistent? Are we obliged to have one master method, one master narrative, one answer to all questions? The work of Mary Cassatt bids me say no.

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