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Beyond 1886


Mary Cassatt, Child Picking a Fruit, 1893, 
oil on canvas, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Gift of Ivor and Anne Massey. © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (photo by Travis Fullerton)

The final impressionist exhibition in 1886 marked a turning point in Degas and Cassatt’s relationship. Although their friendship endured until his death, their interactions noticeably diminished as they began to move in different directions. Cassatt focused increasingly on depictions of mothers and children. The once energetic brushwork of her earlier impressionist paintings gave way to greater precision, and she developed a proclivity for bold colors and elaborate patterns. Degas’s art underwent a radical stylistic transformation as well. His compositions became increasingly simplified, his colors more vibrant, his paint handling broader and more expressive. He also devoted much of his energy to reworking earlier canvasses.



Mary Cassatt, Maternal Caress, 1890–1891, color drypoint and aquatint, National Gallery of Art, Chester Dale Collection

One shared preoccupation of the 1890s was color printmaking, but here, too, each artist adopted a distinct approach. Enthralled by an exhibition of Japanese wood-block prints she saw in Paris in April 1890, Cassatt undertook a series of colored etchings in which she adapted the flat planes of color and crisp delineation of the Japanese prints to depict scenes in the everyday life of upper middle-class Parisian women. And Degas, inspired by a visit he made to Burgundy in October 1890, began work on a series of landscape prints. He produced some fifty of them using the monotype technique, applying colored oil paints directly to a glass or metal plate and printing a single impression each time. Spontaneous, expressive, and verging on true abstraction, these “imaginary landscapes,” as he called them, were the very antithesis of Cassatt’s meticulous color prints.

When Degas died in 1917, Cassatt was deeply saddened: “He was my oldest friend here,” she wrote, “and the last great artist of the nineteenth century.”