Lilacs in a Window Mary Cassatt Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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A rare still life, Mary Cassatt's 'Lilacs in a Window' is a charming dreamlike vision of a vase packed with fragrant lilacs.

The title might make the unknowing to-be spectator believe that the flowers are inside the room, on the window-sill, while the viewer stands outside looking in, but in fact, the viewpoint is inside the room, with the flowers – which have been hastily gathered and placed into a handy vase, one which has a lovely dark purple-green colour which harmonises beautifully against the delicate light purple and white petals of the clusters of flowers.

Cassatt's paintings often present a similar sort of 'snap-shot' air, but usually more can be read into them than the superficial image. Often, they carry an ironic feminist side-eye, one that is subtle and easy to miss – which was probably done deliberately in order for Cassatt's works to be taken seriously and earn her some much needed prestige and sufficient funds to purchase her art supplies. Her father, unwilling to allow his daughter's life-long dedication to art to be her vocation, paid her an allowance that was just sufficient to keep her clothed, fed and housed – there was nothing left over for her art!

It is likely that this painting was created in order to be saleable: it seems to have been created with a fair amount of speed and informality. This is not to say that it is a bad painting, nor that it lacks artistic merit. On the contrary, the unusual viewpoint – almost as though the flowers are blocking the viewer's gaze from what temptations lie outside, could be a commentary on the situation in which Cassatt found herself.

Which is to say, indulging her love of painting – her creative itch, she called it – but doing so in order to earn money with which she could truly indulge her artistic skills in paintings that carry a message.

A word of warning, however, Cassatt hated the idea of a painting carrying with it a narrative. Instead, she presented moments – much as her mentor and friend, Edgar Degas, presented moments of a ballet dancer's life – rather than tales, preferring to present the scene as a tableau, fixed and unchanging.

The hidden messages, if there, were for the discerning to uncover, she seemed to indicate, it bothered her not at all if her works were taken at face value by those who could not see beyond the surface. Find this painting, complete with hidden meaning (or not) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: it is a smallish painting, measuring only 61 centimetres by 51 centimetres, in oil paints on canvas.