IMA program will explore Cassatt's portrayal of period fashion

Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt is generally known for her depictions of tender moments between mother and child -- tender paintings of domestic settings.

"She's quite well-known as an American painter during the Impressionist time," said Indianapolis Museum of Art Textiles Curator Niloo Paydar.

But if you look a little more closely, you see a detailed rendering of the times -- and the clothes -- in which Cassatt painted.

The IMA's Fashion Arts Society and the Alliance of the Indianapolis Museum of Art have arranged for Nancy Mowll Mathews -- a Cassatt expert and Williams College Museum of Art curator of 19th- and 20th-century art -- to lead a discussion on the ways Cassatt used the clothing in her paintings to comment on modern life and modern art.

For the IMA, the Cassatt talk is another way to engage its visitors with art; it's another lens or perspective, said Ellen Lee, the IMA Wood-Pulliam senior curator.

"Clothing is so personal, and it is so reflective of personality," Lee said. "It's part of our everyday life, so it's kind of irresistible. Clothing and how it's worn is another visual art. It's another aspect of aesthetics, and it can be so lively and so approachable."

To know the woman is to know her times -- and her clothing.

Raised in an affluent Pennsylvania-based family, Cassatt was already a clotheshorse by the time she moved to Paris in 1866 to study painting.

"If you look at photographs of her in her teens and 20s, she's always dressed to the nines," Mathews said.

Cassatt was a keen observer of fashion -- and she had "a real sense of her own style, which comes out in her self-portraits," said Gloria Groom, curator at the Art Institute of Chicago. "For her paintings, she used understated, beautiful materials that are still in some ways very classic."

The late 19th century also saw dress reform, in which women adopted bloomers or, even more popularly, the Neoclassical dress -- a loose-fitting dress of light material, almost like a nightgown. The dress was adopted by many artists' wives or other bold women who eschewed the steel bones of corsetry.