Leaning on Her Arms by American artist Mary Cassatt was painted in 1879, around the time she became close to fellow artist Edgar Degas. Indeed, the picture displays the influence of Degas the French Impressionist in its rapidly drawn contours and colors, as well as the fact of Cassatt’s use of pastel in the work.
Where Cassatt makes the work her own, however, is in the nature of her portrayal of her sister Lydia at the theatre and in its psychological depth. Lydia is here an independent young woman, unchaperoned and active rather than showing passivity which was the artistic norm for the portrayal of women. She leans forward interested, her elbows on her legs and her expression is one of engrossment, perhaps in the proceedings of a play or perhaps people-watching.
Femininity is foregrounded here, both conceptually and formally, as the sitter leans towards us at an oblique angle. This femininity is, however, class-specific as the rich surroundings and golden dress signify.
In the manner of Mary Cassatt’s drawing here we observe a speed of application bordering on the vigorous. This itself has conventional connotations of masculinity. Therefore she doubly subverts and overcomes the masculine characterization of women in her gestural style of drawing and in the drawing of a sitter who is active and independent.
Mary Cassatt’s Lydia Leaning on Her Arms is in a private collection