Mary Cassatt — Selected Color Prints
Known for her perceptive depictions of women and children, Mary Cassatt was one of the few American artists active in the nineteenth-century French avant-garde. Born to a prominent Pittsburgh family, she traveled extensively through Europe with her parents and siblings while a child. Between 1860 and 1864 she attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. At the age of twenty-two Cassatt went abroad, studying old master paintings in European museums. In Paris, she studied with prominent academic painters and independently at the Louvre. Returning to the United States for a short period, Cassatt went back to Europe in 1871, spending her time painting and copying the old masters in museums in Italy, Spain, and Belgium.
In 1874 she settled permanently in Paris. Although she had several works accepted for exhibition by the tradition-bound French Salon, her artistic aims aligned her with the avant-garde painters of the time. In 1877, Edgar Degas invited her to join the progressive group of artists popularly known as the impressionists; she particularly admired the work of Degas, as well as that of Manet and Courbet. A close working relationship developed between Cassatt and Degas. From similar upper-class backgrounds, the two painters enjoyed a friendship based on common artistic sensibilities and interests in bold compositional structure, the asymmetry and high vantage point of Japanese prints, and contemporary subject matter.
During her long residence in France, Cassatt sent paintings back to exhibitions in the United States. Thus, hers were among the first impressionist works seen in this country. In advising wealthy American patrons on what to acquire, she also played a crucial role in the formation of some of the most important collections of impressionist art in this country.
In 1877, Mary Cassatt's parents came to live with her in Paris. From this time on, her mother Katherine became a favorite subject for Cassatt's paintings, drawings, and prints. In this portrait, Mrs. Cassatt, who was in poor health, sits in a chair, her head resting on her hand; she seems immersed in a contemplative reverie.
This complex print combines both etching and aquatint. Cassatt carefully controlled her use of aquatint so that some areas such as the flowers, face, and shawl were only lightly bitten, while the dress printed as a rich, black tone, setting off the sitter's pale face.
In the final state, touches of green and yellow have been added to the plate; Cassatt used sticks fitted with soft, cloth-covered heads to apply paint directly to the surface of the plate before printing. Because she hand-colored the plates individually, each one has a distinctive quality, and in this sense her prints are unique works.
In April 1890, an exhibition of Japanese woodcuts at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris inspired Mary Cassatt to begin experimenting with different print techniques. Using aquatint, drypoint, etching, and hand-coloring, Cassatt attempted to capture the flat planes and simple lines of Japanese woodcuts. After painstakingly overseeing the execution of each print, Cassatt exhibited the resulting series of ten at the Durand Ruel Gallery in Paris the next year. Together, the prints combine the spare beauty of Japanese woodcut designs with innovative color patterns and finely tuned drawing.
The Bath was Cassatt's first effort in the series, and the only one, according to her, in which she truly tried to imitate Japanese design. She produced seventeen different states for The Bath, more than for any other print in the series. The subject, a mother and child, is a favorite of Cassatt's, and in the series as a whole, she opens a window on women's private lives in the nineteenth century.
Mary Cassatt developed this composition without reference to her other works, intending it to be executed specifically in the print medium.
By the third state, Cassatt was using three plates to transfer the etched lines and tonal areas onto the sheet of paper. This method helped to ensure that the various colors would not bleed into one another and that the lines would remain clearly defined. Cassatt placed aquatint on the three plates, hand painting each one to arrive at a large number of colors.
Here Cassatt's treatment of a domestic scene showing a single figure is unusual in that emphasis is placed on the nape of the neck, a symbol of beauty in Oriental art. Other Japanesque elements are the lamp table and the ceramic ornaments, as well as the echoing curves of the lampshade, fan, and sofa.
Mary Cassatt often depicts mothers and children, as in In the Omnibus. This print, however, departs from the usual interior scene, since the artist has chosen to place her subjects on a public bus.
The exterior setting of In the Omnibus suggests a great deal about nineteenth-century rules of conduct for women. Middle- and upper-class society dictated that respectable women did not venture out alone in public; a male or female chaperone was considered a necessity, as in this scene.
Cassatt has also marked the social status of the women by their clothing, in particular, their hats. The woman on the left wears an elaborately decorated and sculpted hat that clearly separates her from the woman on the right, who wears a simple cap. The woman holding the baby is presumably the nanny; while her attention is focused on the baby, the baby's mother turns her gaze through an unseen window to events happening outside the bus. Women who could afford to do so hired nannies to assist in raising their children. In turn, they enjoyed greater freedom to pursue other interests, a fact which is perhaps illustrated by the mother's diverted gaze.
In The Letter, as in the other prints from this series, Mary Cassatt explores the private realm of women in the nineteenth century. Though such domestic activities may at first glance seem trivial, Cassatt consistently endows her subjects with a gravity that underscores the seriousness of their occupations.
Correspondence often consumed a large part of a woman's day; she not only wrote to friends and acquaintances, but she was also responsible for answering invitations, responding to inquiries, and dealing with the daily domestic cares of the household. For Cassatt, who was an American expatriate living in Paris, the importance of letter-writing to keep in touch with family and friends must have held a special significance. The dropleaf desk in this composition still belongs to the artist's family; at one time, Cassatt herself may have used it to write letters.
Several aspects of The Letter reflect Japanese influence. The flattening of space is typical of the Japanese woodcuts popular in Europe at the time, as is an interior setting.
In The Fitting, Mary Cassatt offers the viewer unusual insight into women's lives in the nineteenth century. A male artist would not likely have had access to this kind of interchange between a seamstress and her client, but as a woman, Cassatt knew the private domain of women well.
The Fitting is part of a series of ten prints that Cassatt created in 1891; together, they form an incisive document of everyday work. In this particular print, Cassatt explores the relationship between women of different social classes. The seamstress crouches over her stitching, her back to the viewer. Neither her face nor her hands are visible; she is essentially anonymous. By contrast, the mirror offers a double view of the young woman being fitted. Both her features and the nape of her neck solicit the viewer's attention. While the fabric of the young woman's dress is elaborately sewn and matched, the seamstress wears only a simple brown stripe. Both women are solemn, immersed in serious work.
In the late 1880s, Mary Cassatt began to explore the theme of women at their toilette. Woman Bathing is part of the 1891 series of ten prints that explores the private activities of women. Woman Bathing displays the same flat planes and liquid color that Cassatt had particularly admired in the exhibition of Japanese prints she had seen at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
Although Cassatt depicted few nudes during her long career, Woman Bathing demonstrates a remarkable sensitivity in this genre. The sensuous curve of the woman's back, drawn in very simple lines, highlights the artist's impeccable draftsmanship. Cassatt often credited the print medium for refining her drawing skills; drawing on a plate requires strict control as the surface mercilessly retains every mark.
The theme of mothers and children pervades much of Mary Cassatt's work. Although she herself never married, she often spent time with friends and family members and their children and represented them in drawings, prints, and paintings.
Mother's Kiss depicts a moment of tenderness between a mother and her baby. Children move quickly and Cassatt developed the ability to capture a pose rapidly, rendering her figures with only a few expressive strokes. Here, Cassatt faithfully delineates the baby's rounded belly and chubby legs in simple, graceful outlines. At any moment, it seems, the child will squirm from his mother's tenuous embrace and the pose will be lost. This slight awkwardness between the two figures denies the sentimentality present in so many works of art that deal with themes of motherhood. Because the figures are not smiling and perfectly posed, they seem more true to our everyday experience.
After seeing the exhibition of Japanese woodcuts at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Mary Cassatt determined to create prints that captured similar bold designs and spare beauty. The models may be friends of the artist, as Cassatt frequently included her friends' and relatives' children in her paintings, drawings, and prints. The artist does not idealize the children's poses; rather, the awkward hugs and the chubby bodies reflect her ability to portray intimate moments seriously and without sentimentality.
Afternoon Tea Party is part of a series of ten color prints in which Mary Cassatt explores the domestic activities and roles of women in the nineteenth century. In this scene, a young woman serves tea and cakes to a visitor. Women typically called on one another in the afternoons, and serving tea was a ritual that often included discussion and relaxation.
The women in Afternoon Tea Party do not seem entirely engaged with one another. While the hostess bends forward expectantly to offer her guest a teacake, the visitor seems to accept only reluctantly. Her arms remain close to her body, and her eyes look down at the plate rather than at the open face of her hostess. The fact that she still wears both her coat and hat suggests that she will not stay long. Perhaps this represents a duty visit rather than a friendly chat over tea.
In The Coiffure, Mary Cassatt depicts a young woman in a private moment, as she pins up her hair for the day. This print is part of a series of ten color prints that Cassatt exhibited at Durand Ruel's gallery in Paris in 1891. Earlier, Cassatt had seen an exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and became entranced by their everyday themes and spare beauty.
The Coiffure is one of two nude studies in Cassatt's color series. Although she did not often represent the nude, Cassatt's simple handling of line and form confirms her skill in drawing the human figure. The straight lines of the mirror and wall and the chair's vertical stripes contrast with the graceful curves of the woman's body. The rose and peach color scheme enhances her sinuous beauty by highlighting her delicate skin tone. Cassatt also emphasizes the nape of the woman's neck, perhaps in reference to a traditional Japanese sign of beauty.
Cassatt used the theme of The Coiffure in a number of her other works, for example, her painting, Girl Arranging Her Hair, portrays a red-haired model who resembles this one in The Coiffure.
In 1888 Mary Cassatt was commissioned to create a mural depicting modern women for the Woman's Building at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Cassatt intended the mural to represent the progress of women into the modern age. Unlike her earlier series of color prints, Gathering Fruit, based on the central panel of that mural, was made to bring the image and its message to a wider audience than those who saw the work in Chicago.
The act of plucking the fruit suggests women's opportunities in the modern world to harvest from the tree of knowledge. This was an important element in depicting the role of modern women, who, in the late nineteenth century, were able to enjoy for the first time many new opportunities for formal education. In sharing the fruit with the baby, the woman symbolically passes knowledge from one generation to another.