This week’s essay is guest edited by Miriam Musco. Miriam Musco is a museum educator at the Sciencenter, a children’s science museum in Ithaca, New York. She earned a B.A. in history from Indiana University and her M.A. in Museum Education from the University of the Arts, and is the author of the blog The Medium is the Museum www.mediumisthemuseum.blogspot.com.
The experience of girlhood, as you can probably imagine, has changed a lot since the close of the nineteenth century. Nowadays, girls have a wide variety of activities they can participate in and many different toys, games, technologies and retailers competing for their attention.Some girls even occupy the media spotlight, as a slew of recent articles on Barack Obama’s two daughters and the popularity of the reality television series Here Comes Honey Boo Boo have shown.1
But in the Victorian Era, girls were still defined by rigid gender codes that were imposed upon all women, and girlhood was only just being explored in art. Favored as subjects by the Impressionists, middle- and upper-class girls were often depicted either as innocents in naturalistic settings or as decorative objects (echoing the place their mothers were thought to occupy in society).
It fell to the iconoclastic painter Mary Cassatt, a rare example of a nineteenth century woman who was self-supported, to break this mold. In Young Girl in Blue Armchair, which now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., Cassatt showed a very realistic girl. She is not posed, primped and proper; instead,she is lounging on a sofa, one arm tucked under her head, with neither her knees nor her ankles crossed – a posture that would have been considered highly indecent in a grown woman. Her figure imitates the sleepy dog sitting nearby, connecting her boredom at being made to sit for a portrait with the monotony a pet might experience sitting around its family’s house all day. The way she arranges herself is even more out of place if you consider the girl’s surroundings – a neat room with matching furniture – and the way she is carefully dressed, both of which are hallmarks of upper-class Victorian families.
Though it seems like just another domestic scene of its era, this painting was something different for art audiences at the time. It showed that girls were not just dolls to be dressed up or idealized pure spirits, but were living, breathing humans with feelings and, sometimes, a sense of impropriety. We are able to read the emotions of this girl Cassatt depicted, yet she is still behaving within the confines of what was expected of girls of her social status.
Young Girl in Blue Armchair is one of the featured images in Defining Our Terms, the inaugural exhibit of the online Girl Museum.2 Girl Museum is dedicated to showing different facets of girlhood throughout history and across the globe, showing that girlhood is not a monolithic experience but instead varied across time and location and even within the same culture. Girl Museum celebrates the variety of true experiences ofgirlhood as lived by real girls. What Mary Cassatt explored in her painting is what allows for modern-day girls to express themselves in their own ways.
As Girl Museum adds on new exhibits, its curators will be looking for more objects that represent unique aspects of girlhood. Those might be depictions of girls, artifacts that girls have used, or documentation girls have left behind about their lives – anything that can show us the thoughts and desires of average girls indifferent places and times.
1 Eric Wilson, “White House Style Watch Expands by Two”, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/15/fashion/sasha-and-malia-obama-thrust-into-fashion-roles.html?ref=fashion