“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.