Eve’s Daughter/Modern Woman: A Mural by Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt was tapped by Bertha Potter Palmer to design a mural for the Women’s Building of the 1893 Expo in Chicago, entitled Modern Woman. Cassatt was at the height of her renown in Paris but unknown in America, so she jumped on the chance for exposure. In this enormous triptych, the main panel is Young Women Plucking he Fruits of Knowledge or Science, which flips the classical interpretation of Genesis and Eve’s apple-picking to empower women and wriggle out from the “sinful” nature of such a quest. The left panel is Young Girls Pursuing Fame, sadly a groundbreaking idea that women had the potential to accomplish immortal feats. The right panel is Art, Music, Dancing where young women are playing music and dancing for their own amusement, not to entertain anyone else.
It’s my fault for being so interested in a topic that I over-research it and become hypercritical whenever an author misleads on a particular point. I thought I would enjoy a refresher on Webster’s views about Cassatt, suffrage, and the 1893 World Expo, since her lecture on the topic at the NYPL last month sent me spiraling to find more information. But her writing style, questionable sources, and lack of clear intent left me cold. Her parenthetical explanations are out of place in a scholarly exploration, and even worse, are irrelevant (see p 13 of the Introduction with her explanation of why she deems Cassatt an “emancipated woman”). On the source front, she quotes from Reid Badger’s The Great American Fair to say that “just as Columbus had once discovered America, the Columbian Exposition now discovered women.” Badger’s original statement qualifies this with “it was often remarked that…” The original quote is actually Bertha Potter Palmer, in her address during the dedication ceremonies that launched the fair: “Even more important than the discovery of Columbus, which we are gathered together to celebrate, is the fact that the General Government has just discovered woman.” (Source: Dedicatory and Opening Ceremonies of the World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893) A final rant is about Webster misstating facts in her lecture last month; a question from the audience about what happened to the Cassatt mural was brushed off by Webster saying it was lost after the Fair was over. In her book, however, she details that the mural was in Palmer’s mansion for eighteen years post-Fair and sustained a bit of water damage which was to be repaired once it found a permanent home, of which the University of Notre Dame was suggested. After that point, the trail goes cold on the Cassatt mural. (Webster boasts that she personally spent a year looking for it.) Webster also dissented to a question of if Cassatt met Bertha Potter Palmer in Paris, but contradicts herself in her own book. Moral of the story is not to give a lecture on a book you wrote a decade prior until you re-read the book?