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When the Impressionists debuted their work as a group in 1874, critics were quick to label their art “feminine.” Their canvases were small, their pastel palettes were too gauzy, their brushstrokes were too loose. Slices of everyday life—seascapes and English gardens, mothers and daughters—appeared in the place of moralizing historical scenes. “Only a woman has the right to rigorously practice the Impressionist system,” critic Téodor de Wyzewa wrote in 1891. “She alone can limit her effort to the translation of impressions.” Male artists, de Wyzewa and others seemed to imply, would have opted for something entirely different.

In 19th-century France, women were largely unable to obtain a formal art education, as studying the nude form was considered scandalous. But the constraints placed on women did not end within the studio. Unmarried women were barred from leaving the home without a chaperone, and they were expected instead to tend the household or pass time with decorative arts in the company of other women. Female Impressionists—many of whom have been undervalued or outright ignored by the historical canon—exploited these confines, producing introspective works that dealt with their makers’ societal conditions. In 1894, critic Henri Focillon singled out three of them as the “Les Trois Grandes Dames,” or “The Three Great Ladies,” of the movement: Berthe MorisotMary Cassatt, and Marie Bracquemond.

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