Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt: The Color Prints Organized by Barbara Stern ShapiroMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston and Nancy Mowll Mathews, Williams College Museum of Art. At the Museum of Fine Arts (Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, September 1989)

The startling perspectives and astonishing color of Mary Cassatt‘s color prints will be a revelation to those who think of her as a painter of charming domestic vignettes.  Cassatt emerges from this superb exhibition as a bold and inventive printmaker whose prints are daring and complex works of art.

Mary Cassatt was born in Pennsylvania in 1844.  She studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, travelled in Europe, and settled in Paris, where she was the only American artist to exhibit with the Impressionists. She came to printmaking late in her career, after seeing the 1890 exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints in Paris, and with the encouragement of her friend Edgar Degas. The center of this exhibition is a series of ten color prints, which are displayed together, as they were at Cassatt’s solo exhibition at Galeries Durand‑Ruel in Paris in 1891.  Cassatt envisioned the series as a modern version of the Japanese albums which unfold the daily lives of courtesans. Each print is a glimpse into a Parisian woman’s daily life.  She is shown washing her face, sitting at her writing desk and licking an envelope, riding on a bus, having tea with a friend, having a dress fitted by a seamstress, bathing and embracing a child, arranging her hair in the mirror. Cassatt composed these prints as close‑up views seen from odd angles, and conveyed the interiors where they take place with just a few details distilled from a universe of things ‑‑ a basin, a lamp, a vase of flowers.

The prints remind me of scenes from novels by Cassatt’s contemporaries — Marcel Proust, Henry James, Virginia Woolf. In many of the prints, a woman’s face is partially obscured, either because of the way she has turned her head, or because she is holding something in front of her face ‑‑ a hand, a letter, a child.  This conveys a sense of mystery, a feeling that there are secret meanings and moments of tragedy  and what Woolf called “ecstasy” — hidden in the texture of a woman’s daily life.

In “The Letter“, a woman in a blue print dress sits at her writing desk, licking the envelope of a letter she has just written.  She is intensely serious; deeply moved.  The pale green leaves of the wallpaper seem to tremble behind her. In “Maternal Caress“, a woman holds a naked baby.  Their cheeks are pressed together, and their eyes are partly closed.  The expression on the mother’s face is extraordinarily intense:  blissfully happy, yet at the same time unutterably sad.  The print is very pale, almost monochromatic in very soft tones of yellow, pale brown, and white.

Cassatt was known as “the Independent.” She never married; she consciously chose “work” rather than “child”, and that choice is reflected in her portrayal of women with their children. Cassatt’s babies are never merely ornamental.  They take up a lot of the space of the picture plane. They  occupy their mothers’ arms and, even though there is often a “nurse” to help, they completely occupy their mothers’ lives. The extraordinarily intense expression on the mother’s face in “Maternal Caress” is not just love.  It is also a total concentration of her energy.  The child is her work, precious and demanding ‑‑ like Art.

Cassatt painted like an Impressionist, with a small flurry of little brush‑strokes saturated with color, dappled with light. In the prints, however, she used color in a radically different way, putting down broad, almost flat washes of color that is astonishingly subtle and intense.   Next to her prints, Cassatt’s paintings look soft and conventional.  In her prints, she pushed herself further towards abstraction and complexity.  Printmaking somehow liberated her, not only from the conventions of Impressionist painting, but also from her own talent ‑‑ “the talent of the brush“. They have a clear, tough, hard‑won beauty that feels very modern.

Mary Cassatt: The Color Prints is a vivid and illuminating chronicle of her creative process. In a painting, the artist’s last layer of paint covers all the layers that came before, but in printmaking, the artist needs to print the work in progress from time to time to see how it looks. These intermediate printings are called states, and they provide a permanent record of the hundreds of small but  critical decisions which go into making a work of art. Each of Cassatt’s twenty‑three prints is shown in several different states.

Cassatt always began with a line drawing, which she reversed onto a copper etching plate.  Working with a gifted professional printer, Leroy, she drew onto the plate with a drypoint needle and printed it several times in black and white, building up a rigorous linear structure that often works beautifully as a line drawing — and she  was aware of how good these black and white prints are, because she signed them. When the drawing finally satisfied her, she used a number of different printmaking techniques to add texture and tone before moving into color. As the print evolves, it grows more abstract and more complex.  The lyrical curves and bold thrusts of the black line soften and recede beneath delicate washes of color.   The patterns of a dress or a passage of wallpaper flatten out, so that they read as texture, rather than ornament.  The expressions on the women’s faces became more enigmatic.  By the final state, the image has lost most of its naturalism, but it has gained tremendously in pure pictorial power.

In printmaking, the image is reversed from the plate onto the paper, and these reversals are echoed in the many mirror images that occur in Cassatt’s prints.  In “The Fitting“, a woman stands in front a mirror, having her dress altered by a seamstress, who is kneeling on the floor.  In “Woman Bathing“, she stands up to wash her face in a basin on a dresser with a small mirror.  In “The Coiffure“, she sits in a red and white striped armchair, arranging her hair before a big mirror. In each of these scenes, the woman in the mirror is transformed into Art.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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