Here is an interesting and, towards the end, actually quite moving study of American émigré painter Mary Cassatt, one of three female artists who took part in the celebrated impressionist exhibitions in late 19th-century Paris, and whose biographers here do an excellent job of reclaiming from relative obscurity. In fact, they do considerably more: Cassatt is built up to be a pioneering feminist voice in an art world that at the time was largely hostile to female painters.
Unlike most of films in the Exhibition on Screen series, this is not related to a blockbuster exhibition, or even a specific collection: it’s instead a general overview of Cassatt’s life and work, starting with her privileged upbringing in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, before her near-permanent shift to Europe after the American civil war, and the consequent headway she made with the then radical impressionist movement (including her strong friendship and collaboration with Edgar Degas.)
There’s certainly a corrective element to this film, highlighting a female artist in a series that has hitherto concentrated (understandably enough) on the likes of Monet, Vermeer and Raphael; this is an interesting and educative act of expanding the canon. Cassatt’s later paintings of women and children come in for a good deal of attention: finely painted and – as one of the expert voices says – quietly symbolic of Cassatt’s political commitment to female suffrage.
Strictly as a documentary, this doesn’t depart from Exhibition on Screen’s standard template: leisurely closeups of the work, informed comment from knowledgable curators, the odd bit of voiceover and staged re-enactment. It does, however, draw Cassatt out as a tough and independent character, pursuing her own artistic path and very much worthy of the respect she has been largely denied by history.