Impressionism – Mary Cassatt; Painter and and Printmaker

Mary Cassatt, Self Portrait, 1878
Mary Cassatt, Self Portrait, 1878

Known for her perceptive depictions of women and children, Mary Cassatt was one of the few American artists in France in the 1800s. She began to show regularly at the Paris Salon in 1868 – with her first work exhibited being a Realist work, The Mandolin Player.

After several tours to Europe, she settled permanently in Paris In 1874. As women weren’t then accepted at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, it is believed that she studied privately with Jean-Leon Gerome, a teacher from the school. Cassatt also attended classes by Charles Chaplin and Thomas Couture and, like Berthe Morisot, she also regularly copied masters at the Louvre.

In 1875 she saw the pastel work of Edgar Degas in a gallery window. Years later, Cassatt described the importance of this experience, “I used to go and flatten my nose against the window and absorb all I could of his art. It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it.” She became extremely proficient in the use of pastels, eventually creating many of her most important works in this medium. Degas also introduced her to etching, of which he was a recognised master at the time.

In 1877, Degas invited her to join the Impressionists and a close working relationship developed between them. 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. Their admiration and support for each other endured long after their art began to head in different directions.

Cassatt exhibited in four of the eight Impressionist exhibitions; in 1879, 1880, 1881, and 1886. During this period she revised her technique, composition, and use of colour and light from the earlier and darker Realist works.

In April 1890, an exhibition of Japanese ukiyo-e woodcuts at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris inspired Cassatt to begin experimenting with different print techniques. However, she blended the Japanese design with that of the Impressionists. Impressionists didn’t use black so she used light pastel colours instead. (Some art historians believe her blending of the two styles made a lasting contribution to the graphic arts.)

Also, she chose not to employ the woodblock process, instead using aquatint, drypoint, etching, and hand-colouring. She made bold compositional choices—flattening forms and perspective, cropping compositions, contrasting decorative patterns and introducing broad planes of colour. Between 1890-91 she executed a series of ten prints that explored the private activities of women. After painstakingly overseeing the execution of each print, Cassatt exhibited the resulting series at the Durand Ruel Gallery in Paris. Together, the prints combined the spare beauty of Japanese woodcut designs with innovative colour 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. Here she was still mastering the technical difficulties of translating woodcuts into intaglio prints. In The Bath, colour is used very simply for the blue tub, the yellow in woman’s dress and the soft background.

The subject, a mother and child, is a favourite 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, who chose her independence and a painting career over being married and having a family, continued painting until 1915, when she became virtually blind. As an independently wealthy woman, she acquired a number of artworks from her fellow artists and either donated or bequeathed these to American art museums, where her work was highly regarded.

This is an excerpt from my interactive online modern art appreciation program http://www.modernartappreciation.com

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