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On a Balcony | 1878/79 | Mary Cassatt

On a Balcony | 1878/79 | Mary Cassatt

On display at the  Art Institute of Chicago  in American Art Gallery 273

On display at the Art Institute of Chicago in American Art Gallery 273

There are two ideas illustrated in this painting that I'd like to explore in this post: the setting in which a reader chooses to read and what constitutes a modern woman. Let's start first with the setting, which is described below.

At first glance, the arresting painting On a Balcony, which was shown in the 1880 Impressionist exhibition, appears to depict a woman in a public setting. However, the blue rail of the balcony, visible near the top of the painting, defines the enclosed space of a private garden, while the woman’s morning dress further indicates the intimacy of her location.
— Art Institute of Chicago

I'm a little obsessed with locations in which people choose to read. The Hasty Book List Instagram account focuses on what books I'm reading and where I'm reading them. I also have a Pinterest board dedicated to places to read. I love a well-designed reading nook or a cozy corner inviting me to curl up and get lost in a book. Every time I see a Juliette balcony off a Chicago three flat, I can't help but imagine myself reading a book on a Sunday morning with a warm cup of coffee by my side. Where do you like to read? Do you have a favorite spot?

The other topic illustrated in this painting that I find fascinating is the idea of a modern woman. What elements contribute to the sense that a woman is modern?

Cassatt signaled the modernity of her subject through the woman’s choice of reading material; she peruses a newspaper rather than a novel. Even at home Cassatt’s subjects are connected to the contemporary world, not lost in a fictional fantasy.
— Art Institute of Chicago

Personally, I take issue with the idea that reading fiction makes a woman less modern or less connected to the contemporary world. But, of course, times have changed since the late 1800s. Lately there has been an influx of lady boss books - nonfiction books about successful women and/or women in leadership positions. Case in point: Fashion is Freedom by Tala Raassi, Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick, and My Journey by Donna Karan. If these are of interest to you, you might also want to follow The Boss Babe Book Club by Lindzi The Trendy Sparrow

The video above touches just briefly on the gown worn by the model in this painting, touting it as a loose morning dress that would have been worn in the privacy of one's own home. Below is another example of an 1870s dress, which is now part of the Costume Institute collection at the Met Museum.

Dress | ca. 1872 |  Met Museum

Dress | ca. 1872 | Met Museum

The 1870s was a period of marked romanticism and whimsy in fashionable dress. Much like the picturesque paintings of Renoir that depict such confectionary creations, both day and evening gowns were highly ornamented and often executed in delicate, feminine textiles. Though eveningwear was marked by décolleté necklines and lavish silk satins and taffetas, day dresses were made more modest with austere fabrics like cotton or wool. While many women owned walking and traveling dresses which afforded slightly greater moveability, also quite common was the summer day dress that was to be worn to an afternoon tea or reception.
— Met Museum

I'm particularly fond of the similarities in fabric and pattern between this example of 1870s fashion and that which is illustrated in the Mary Cassatt painting. Both are beautiful examples of the romantic, whimsical fabrics with delicate floral patterns covering the entire ensemble. Add a fichu to the gown pictured above and it could be the very same gown as the one worn by the model in On a Balcony.

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