Mary Cassatt: Print Maker Extraordinaire

Today, May 22, is the 168th Birthday of Mary Cassatt who was one of the most innovative artists of the nineteenth century. I often feel she doesn’t get her due as a true genius. Most critics fashion her a sentimental women artist and focus on her mother and children paintings that made her a lot of money when she was working in Paris. Even those don’t get their due as Modern interpretations of the Madonna and Child theme. She really is a complex, misunderstood woman artist. For her birthday, I dug out an old magazine article I wrote on her when working for the National Museum of Women in the Arts that focuses on her innovation in printmaking. I wrote it to correspond to a donation of prints the museum received, so I tweaked it a little bit for this post.

In 1879 Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Félix Bracquemond, and other artists of the group that would later become known as the Impressionists began discussing a new print journal, Le jour et la nuit, to which many in their circle would contribute major prints. Through the practice of printmaking, Degas insisted, they would learn to draw and perfect their art. Mary Cassatt (1844–1926), who had distinguished herself a few years earlier as the only American to exhibit with the Impressionists, was invited to participate. While the journal was never published, the project cemented a close friendship between Cassatt and Degas, and it began Cassatt’s lasting interest in printmaking.

For over thirty years, Cassatt embraced the challenge of printmaking and created over two hundred prints. She believed printmaking was the perfect artistic discipline for learning to draw, as it required great control and skill. Employing a range of printing techniques, from drypoint to hard- and soft-ground etching and aquatint to color prints, she drew her images on metal plates from which multiple impressions could be pulled. Her experiments would lead to one of the greatest contributions to graphic art—her “ten color prints”—which introduced new techniques to color printing.

Cassatt and all other “modern” painters wrestled with how to make color prints. In 1890, Cassatt visited the great exhibition of Japanese art at the École des Beaux Arts, and was inspired by the subject matter and unfamiliar technique. She wrote to Berthe Morisot that she [Morisot] “couldn’t dream of anything more beautiful.” She purchased several Japanese woodcuts and studied the centuries-old technique until she could translate it into her own printmaking. With this endeavor, Cassatt introduced a new chapter to the history of printmaking by creating a series of ten color prints modeled after Japanese methods.

When viewed together, the similarities are remarkable. This is a wood-block print by Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1865), one of the most prolific Japanese artists of the ukiyo-e style.

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This is Cassatt’s The Coiffure from her series. Cassatt even rendered her sitter with subtle Asian facial features, which did not go unnoticed by the public who saw her exhibition.

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Cassatt’s innovation lay in mixing printing techniques and experimenting with the process of applying color to the plate. She used one plate for the tonal area and another for drypoint lines, applying color by hand to each of the plates, which were then successively impressed on paper. The procedure was complex and labor intensive, requiring a day of preparation just to ink and reprint the plates for each of the impressions. In addition to technique, she also borrowed the Japanese style of using outlines to suggest fully rounded contours, almost completely eliminating the traditional shading and tonal variations that create the illusion of depth in Western art.

The set of ten color prints, along with a series of twelve drypoints, were shown in an exhibition at the Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paris in 1893. The show received accolades from critics and contemporaries. According to a letter written by Pissarro to his son, her tones were exceptionally fine and her results were as beautiful as those executed by Japanese masters. Cassatt’s success with her ten color prints added to her standing as an artist, and it is remarkable to note that she most likely did not use any preliminary color sketches.

Cassatt’s reputation as an artist put her in connection with leading Parisian dealers and artists. This stature led to another of Cassatt’s contributions to the history of art. At the turn of the century, Cassatt became a conduit to several prominent American collectors, assisting them with assembling their own private collections of European masterpieces. Her role as art advisor created the greatest American collections of French Impressionism.

For the remainder of her artistic career, she divided her time between the passion of advising and her own work, continuing to work on metal plates to improve her draftsmanship. In 1910 she ceased working on metal, as the shiny surface aggravated her failing eyesight, and she stopped printmaking altogether four years later.

To see all ten prints from Cassatt’s series, you can visit the National Gallery of Arts online exhibition Mary Cassatt — Selected Color Prints.

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