American Woman

Marabou wonders, who is the American woman, according to The Metropolitan Museum of Art?

Marabou wonders why “Madame X” is so popular among visitors to The Met’s American Wing. “Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau)” (16.53), John Singer Sargent, 1883-4.

As Marabou walks through the Charles Engelhard Court (discussed in a previous post) toward the American Wing galleries, there is a sunken area, just before the facade of the Branch Bank of the United States, with a gathering of statues. The smooth, white surfaces of the statues are all in the Neoclassical style and made in the mid to late-nineteenth century. All celebrate American mastery of an ancient style and art form. Of the seven statues, four stand out to Marabou. The four statues depict women, three famous, one anonymous:

  1. “Cleopatra,” in her last moments with the asp wrapped around her forearm as she contemplates suicide.
  2. “The Libyan Sibyl,” the prophet broods following her premonition about the fate of slavery for African people. (The artist described this as his “anti-slavery sermon in stone.”)
  3. “Medea,” Greek mythological figure best known for her murderous tendencies and killing her own children.
  4. “Mexican Dying Girl,” who, as it sounds, is dying, with one hand clutching the wound beneath her bare breast and the other holding a necklace with a Christian cross. She wears the headdress associated with native populations from the United States Plains region that is only worn by men.
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Four Marble Statues in the Charles Engelhard Court. Top row: “Cleopatra”, “The Libyan Sibyl”, and “Medea”, all sculpted by William Wetmore Story in the latter 19th century. Bottom: “Dying Mexican Girl” by Thomas Crawford.

It is easy to appreciate the skill needed to create these four statues. The subject matter represents what was of interest to sculptors and the American public during the nineteenth century: antiquity, Greek mythology, and saving Native Americans through conversion to Christianity. For Marabou, it’s fine to think about each sculpture’s history and significance in this way, but there should also be a broader conversation about what this subject matter (and its perpetuation) says about the perception of women and the female experience during this time period. Cleopatra is shown in her most vulnerable state, no longer the powerful ruler. The Libyan Sibyl sees the future, but is powerless to change it. Medea, holding a knife, is conflicted, frustrated, and grasping for control. The Mexican Dying Girl is anonymous, falling in battle, but will be saved in the eyes of her aggressor because she has converted to Christianity. These statues all capture moments of drama. It’s important to ask, why are these the most appealing moments of each woman’s story? Each woman depicted is in a powerless state and/or defeated. Factors outside of her control are influencing her tragic end. All four statues are of women who are strong, influential, and assertive but the way they are depicted strips them of these qualities. History is filled with powerful women, they just aren’t documented as well as their male counterparts. If they are, the way in which women are portrayed often downplays their impact, just like these statues.

From the sculptures in the courtyard, Marabou moves into the paintings galleries on the second floor. Marabou passes many depictions of men, including George Washington and Ben Franklin. Where some of the sculpted ladies in the Engelhard Court were powerful (yet defeated) figures, the women inside the paintings galleries are domesticated, tame and well-kept. Queen Victoria is the only woman with real power on display (an interesting choice for the American Wing since Victoria is an embodiment of the English monarchy). The other women in the galleries are influential because of their wealth, but don’t necessarily have economic or social agency. “Madame X,” a painting by John Singer Sargent of Madame Pierre Gautreau, is one of the popular works in the American galleries. Mme Gautreau stands next to a circular brown table with a cinched, corseted waist, her porcelain-white skin contrasting with a black evening dress. The museum label says that Mme Gautreau, “was known in Paris for her artful appearance.” According to Gallery 768’s description, “Images of Women 1880-1910: Around 1900 refined women were favored subjects of many American artists. The works in this gallery reflect the contemporary notion that a woman’s proper sphere was within a harmonious interior, absorbed in cultivated pastimes, or in a sheltered outdoor setting, engaged in leisure activities.” Marabou notices that there are two predominant categories of women in the American paintings galleries: ladies of leisure (like Mme Gautreau) and mommies.

anshutz, american art, american woman
Marabou with some of the seated American ladies. L to R: “Study in Black and Green” (08.139.1), John White Alexander, 1906; “Ernesta” (15.84) Cecilia Beaux, 1914; “A Rose” (1993.324), Thomas Anshutz, 1907.

There are a lot of women literally sitting pretty in the paintings of the American galleries. If you are sitting for a portrait (unless you are a friend or relative of the artist), likely you have commissioned it and have the time and money to sit around, implying wealth and social standing. Although artistically and technically beautiful paintings, the ones that depict women often show them in passive or self-indulgent poses: lounging, getting ready to go out, or already finely dressed and waiting to be appreciated. The active women seen among the art are mothers with their children.

mary cassatt, mother, american woman, american art
“Young Mother Sewing” (29.100.48), Mary Cassatt, 1900.
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“A Young Mother” (06.306), Bessie Potter Vonnoh, orig. 1896, cast, ca. 1906.

Obviously it’s not surprising to find that American paintings of women from the colonial period to the early twentieth century present feminine stereotypes. Just like the four sculptures in the courtyard, the paintings reflect the mentality of the time period. However, the Met has been collecting American art for over 140 years. Marabou is curious to know if there is at least one sculpture or painting in the museum’s collection that can be included in the American Wing galleries to provide a counterpoint to the impeccably dressed women and economically comfortable mothers currently on display. Is there art that can remind visitors that not all American women are white, that American women of the past also worked, were the backbone of certain industries, and sometimes couldn’t spend a lot of time with their own children because they were taking care of someone else’s? This whitewashed, idealized, and aspirational narrative that leaves out working, poor, and less beautifully dressed women is still very much alive today. American media continues to tell people to value women who are beautiful, have fashion sense, and excel only at what is women’s work, such as child rearing and taking care of the home. Instead of reaffirming old gender stereotypes, the American Wing has the potential to be contemporary and relevant. It could inspire conversations drawing parallels between past and present about the changing and evolving role of women over time. In order to do this The Met needs to add variety to the type of women featured in the American galleries, whether this means expanding the collection or providing gallery content that acknowledges the collection’s blind spots.

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