MARY CASSATT, the original American in Paris, was a paradox: A painter with an early bias against printmaking, she later turned to color prints, which made her the most celebrated American artist of her time in that field. ``Mary Cassatt: The Color Prints,'' on view at the National Gallery of Art through Aug. 27, is the subject of the first major exhibition dedicated to these intriguing pictures. ``When people think of Cassatt they think of her wonderful paintings,'' says J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery. ``...What emerges from this show is the news that she is one of the seminal printmakers of the modern period, and was an extraordinarily gifted technician and experimenter in this highly complex craft.''
In the color catalog that accompanies the show, the exhibition's co-curator Nancy Mowll Mathews, notes, ``Among Americans Cassatt had no rivals in the area she carved out for herself.'' Ms. Mathews is Prendergast Curator of the Williams College Museum of Art, which organized the exhibition in collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and in association with the National Gallery.
Cassatt and Parisian Berthe Morisot were the two significant women painters among the French Impressionists; Cassatt was the only American. And it was Cassatt's Impressionist pals who lured her into printmaking. Edgar D'egas and Camille Pissarro asked her to join them in doing etchings for a print journal they wanted to publish, La Jour et La Nuit (Day and Night). The journal never appeared, but Cassatt's first prints in black and white did. D'egas himself eventually collected 90 of Cassatt's prints, including the lacy, dreamy ``The Vistor,'' which appears as a black-and-white introduction to this color print show.
How successful Cassatt became at printmaking can be judged by this excerpt from a letter Pissarro wrote to his son Lucien, which co-curator Barbara Sterns Shapiro, of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, quoted from: ``It is absolutely necessary, while what I saw yesterday as Miss Cassatt's is still fresh in mind, to tell you about the [colored prints] she is to show at Durand-Ruel's at the same time as I ..., a show of rare and exquisite works. You remember the effects you strove for at Eragny? Well, Miss Cassatt has realized just such effects, and admirably: the mat tone, subtle, delicate, without stains or smudges: adorable blues, fresh rose, etc. ... The result is admirable, as beautiful as Japanese work, and it's done with colored printer's ink.''
Those familiar with the rich, light-struck colors of familiar Cassatt paintings like ``Woman in a Loge'' will find a different Cassatt in this show. The tender studies of mothers and children for which she became famous are present, although translated into this very different medium, with its often more subdued colors. You can literally see the artist at work here in the distinct ``states,'' or stages, of the picture, as separate colors were added. Seeing the sequence is like reading from first draft to last over a famous author's shoulder.
For ``The Bath,'' which depicts a mother in a yellow print dress kneeling beside a round tub, testing the temperature of the water for the baby dandled on her left side, all 17 states of the print are on view. Cassatt, the perfectionist, is still not sure at the end whether she prefers the water to have a blue tinge (16th state) or a green tinge (7th state). Seeing the sequence offers an incredible insight into the creative process, one which an oil painting does not reveal.
Twenty-three color prints have been massed togther in groups of up to nine versions. They include early drawings, preliminary states, and final states, as well as associated pastels and paintings. In the fourth state of ``The Letter,'' for instance, Cassatt made two versions, one in which she hand-inked the flowers on the wallpaper in a blue keyed to the writer's dress, another in which the flowers are a dusty reddish rose, the dress and furniture darker.
In her color print ``The Fitting,'' the model is the same red-haired woman in the oil painting ``Woman Holding a Red Zinnia,'' mounted nearby in the exhibit. The painting is one of 30 works from the National Gallery's permanent collection included.
This exhibition spans the 10 years that changed Cassatt's life as an artist. As Ms. Mathews puts it, ``This was the most productive part of her career in all areas.''
Why, then, did Mary Cassatt abruptly say au revoir to printmaking in 1897? Margaret Morgan Grasselli, a French graphics scholar at the National Gallery, says Cassat's dealer, Durand-Ruel in Paris, ``apparently convinced her that it was not profitable and that she should keep on with oil paintings and pastels, instead.''
The Cassatt exhibition, underwritten by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston Sept. 9-Nov. 5, and then at the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Mass., Nov. 24-Jan. 21, 1990.