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  • Writer's pictureLinda Borromeo

Mary Cassatt and the Vanishing Mural

On a bright Chicago morning, Christie Edwards faces a life-altering decision. She is attending an awards ceremony at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, and she must make a surprising choice. In a room full of people, all looking at her, Christie searches for an answer.

Flashing, brilliant colors catch her eye, and she looks up to see patterns of radiant green, deep red and purple like a ripe plum. All the colors form a stunning mural by Impressionist artist Mary Cassatt.

One scene Christie especially notices shows a woman handing down the fruits of knowledge and science to a young girl. In that moment, she knows what she wants to do about her future.

A Dangerous Fair

Christie is one of the young sleuths I'm writing about, along with her friend, Melina Karyotakis. In my upcoming book, Mystery Fair, they must try to solve a dangerous mystery taking them to Chicago and the Fair. (Look for Mystery Fair a little later this year.)

Also known as the World's Columbian Exposition, the Fair has many innovations and "firsts." One of them is the Women's Building where Christie is standing on that sunny day.

The Women's Building, designed by architect Sophia Hayden

Although work by women was displayed throughout the Fair, the Women's Building marked the first time achievements by women had a dedicated home integrated into the main part of an exposition. And that is where one the great mysteries in art history begins.

The Mystery of the Mural

Mary Cassatt Self-Portrait c. 1880. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Impressionist painter Mary Stevenson Cassatt decided to take on the challenge of painting a (very) large mural for display in the Women's Building.

The mural's size astonished me. Her work measured fifty-eight feet long by twelve feet high—as near as I can figure out, that's the height of a one-story building and about the length of a five-story building laid on its side.

Cassatt had been painting for over 30 years, but was little known in the United States at the time, even though she was born in Pennsylvania in 1844. As an adult, she had joined the great tide of artists and authors finding their way to France.

An Ingenious Solution

I wondered how an artist goes about painting such a large piece. It was at her rented country home at Bachivillers that she came up with an ingenious solution.

In her glass-domed, outdoor painting studio, she had a deep trench built into the floor. Workmen lowered the art into the trench, always at a comfortable level, enabling her to paint without climbing up a ladder. Mary Cassatt was nearing fifty, and her most productive creative time had just started.

Finally, when the doors of the Women's Building officially opened, visitors gazed up at the mural with its brilliant colors. It was called Modern Woman, and some were shocked by the vivid colors; others disapproved of the subjects depicted. Viewers seemed to either embrace it with praise or push it away with decisive language. It was new, amazing and controversial art.

Made up of three panels, Cassatt painted Young Girls Chasing Fame on the left panel. For the central panel, the one that has special meaning for Christie, Cassatt pictured Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge or Science. Young women participate in Arts, Music and Dancing in the right-hand panel.

The lustrous purple color in her painting reminds me of Lydia, the successful businesswoman of the ancient world. Lydia was a merchant of royal purple goods. The expensive dye used, one of the most valuable products in antiquity, never faded. (See Lydia's story in Acts 16.)

I can imagine how this applies to knowledge, with Lydia handing down her business acumen and faith, perhaps to her daughters and granddaughters.

A wise Hebrew king once said, "An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge." (Proverbs 18:15 ESV)

The message for me is how precious knowledge is, and how important it is to learn the truth and apply it for good in a way that doesn't fade, just like Lydia's cloth. That is the feeling I find in looking at these echoes of Mary Cassatt's mural.

Cassatt featured women dressed in spring-like, comfortable clothes (no corsets!) and the painting mixes classical allusions and other references with a natural feeling of movement and joy. The overall message is a hope-filled one of girls delighting in learning and enjoying new opportunities.

The Disappearance

This expressive painting now seems to exist only in black and white photographs taken at the time. A few colored prints were made by George Barrie—this is the only one I could find, used as my cover image.

How does a mural the size of a large building vanish?

Just as my characters search for Melina's father in Mystery Fair, art lovers have tried to investigate what happened to Cassatt's mural.

When the Fair closed down on October 31, 1893, the mural was put into storage at the Fair's Palace of Fine Arts (now the Museum of Science and Industry). However, it appears the large painting did not stay there, but was moved some time later.

Art Palace at Night by Charles S. Graham

What happened to the mural next? In the closing chapters of her book, art historian and author Sally Webster tells of her detective work trying to trace it.

The artwork was mentioned in a few letters, and interest was there to display the mural, but it never happened. After 1912, the trail goes cold.

The public has never seen the mural since 1893, and no known mention of it is recorded in over a hundred years. It has become one of the most puzzling vanishing acts in art history.

Will the flashing colors of Mary Cassatt's mural ever come to light again? I hope a wonderful discovery will be made someday in a dark storage room, and visitors can gaze at the brilliant colors and Mary Cassatt's unique artistry once more.

Solving a Mystery

Author Sean Vogel has written a fast-paced novel about four teenagers searching for the mural in present-day Chicago. I just finished the book and it kept me turning the pages. Children ages 10 and up will enjoy the adventure and humor; there is also a theme of sadness and loss to deepen the plot. Recommended for adults as well.

Helpful Resources:

“Mary Cassatt's Chicago Mural.” American Girls Art Club In Paris and Beyond, 9 Dec. 2014.

Mathews, Nancy Mowll. Mary Cassatt: A Life. Yale University Press, 1998.

Nichols, Dr. Kathleen L. “Mary Cassatt's Lost Mural.” Mary Cassatt's Lost Mural--Pt.1.

“The Story.” Chicago Bound: A Jake McGreevy Middle-Grade Novel Features the Search for Mary Cassatt's Lost Mural from the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.

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