“What do women know about style?” said Degas to Mary Cassatt. A pouting, misogynist complaint from a prince of the patriarchal Impressionist movement, but one that Cassatt took as a challenge. In Girl Arranging Her Hair we see Cassatt’s response—a humble figure, a working class girl getting ready for her day, but composed and painted perfectly.
The sitter is caught in a causal moment, twisting a braid into her hair, eyes averted, perhaps on a mirror off-canvas. She is plain, but her flushed cheeks and ruddy hands are rendered with beauty, echoing the floral wallpaper. Her posture and nightgown create a traditional ‘X’ composition from corner to corner.
While the male impressionists focused on plein aire painting and their war on Academic Art, Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot, Marie Bracquemond, and a handful of female Impressionists looked inward, depicting family, friends, and quietly dignified domestic scenes. And while less well-known than their male counterparts, these women did the hard work of giving Impressionism a soul.
To give bitter old Degas his due, he traded one of his paintings for Girl Arranging Her Hair after the eighth and final Impressionist exhibit, and the painting hung in a place honor in his salon for the rest of his life. Ironically, after Degas’s death, the artwork was initially misattributed by executors as one of his own.
Reed Enger, "Girl Arranging Her Hair," in Obelisk Art History, Published February 09, 2015; last modified March 16, 2020, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/mary-cassatt/girl-arranging-her-hair/.