There is a great exhibition currently on view at the New York Public Library. It highlights the prints of famed Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt (1844-1917). Cassatt was renown for her contributions to the Impressionist school of painting in France, but I knew every little about her efforts of printmaking.
The Fitting by Mary Cassatt, 1891. Color print with drypoint and aquatint.
Cassatt was from Pennsylvania, and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts as a teenager. Art schools were much different then. Females were not allowed to draw the nude models in classes. They instead were instructed to draw from mannequins and plaster casts. In 1866, Cassatt moves to Paris to further her studies.
She starts showing her work at the official Paris Salon, but was rejected in 1875. This is the same year that she accepts an invitation from Edgar Degas to join the Impressionist group.
The Coiffure by Mary Cassatt, 1891. Image courtesy of NYPL.
I immediately noticed how much Cassatt’s prints looked like Japanese woodblock prints from the era. The show went on to talk about how many of Cassatt’s early prints were influenced by the influx of Japanese art that flooded Paris in the late 19th Century. Many of her compositions mimic traditional Japanese art: the placement of the subject, the use of space, and the idea of capturing moments of daily life.
Takashima Ohisa Using Two Mirrors to Observe Her Coiffure by Kitagawa Utamaro, c. 1795. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Another observation that interested me was the representation of patterns on textiles and other decorative objects. Patterns seemed to jump out at me: the floral print on the carpet, the painted pitcher, the stripes on the subject’s dress.
I also enjoyed seeing several prints of with the same composition, but that had different layers of plates. This was because Cassatt was experimenting with reworking her copper plates and perhaps which colors of acquatint she would use.
Afternoon Tea Party by Mary Cassatt, 1891. Image courtesy of NYPL.
Seeing the various stages of Cassatt’s process is so interesting. I love seeing work like this, because it allows you into the artist’s mind. You can see how she dealt with challenges in depicting the image as it was in her mind. Maybe she wanted more depth in the background, or the cups to be a darker blue. It reminded me of the exhibition on Matisse – where you started to see how the artist revisited a composition again and again to perfect it.
Again, you can see this evolution in The Letter. One has a very plain background, while the other focuses on the pattern of the wallpaper.
The Letter by Mary Cassatt, 1891. Image courtesy of NYPL.
If you can’t make it to the show, the exhibition catalog is available online.
Mother’s Kiss by Mary Cassatt, 1891. Image courtesy of NYPL.