Cassatt's painterly prints

This print of a woman licking the envelope of a letter she is about to mail was made by the American artist Mary Cassatt. It was one of a set of 10 color prints for her first one-person exhibition, held in Paris in 1891. Women were the subject in every print - contemporary women involved in various daily tasks or rituals.

Cassatt had previously considered and presented herself as a painter. In fact, from early in her career, she had believed printmaking to be a lesser art. But gradually she developed an interest in making prints, and by 1890 various other factors contributed to a period of dedicated enthusiasm when she seems to have actually stopped painting and put everything into printmaking.

One contributory factor was the interest in experimental printmaking of other Impressionist artists in Cassatt's circle. Her friend Degas, for example. And Pissarro, who was to strongly admire Cassatt's 10 prints. They tried making prints that were painterly and colorful, in line with their paintings.

Cassatt was also aware of a revival of etching that went far beyond the Impressionist circle. Whistler was one leading exponent.

But the most immediate stimulus was a vast exhibition in Paris, opening in April 1890, of Japanese ukiyo-e prints. Cassatt had herself known, read about, and collected Japanese prints for many years. But this show still appears to have bowled her over. She was, she wrote to Berthe Morisot, "in ecstasy" over it.

Although the Japanese prints were woodcuts, Cassatt worked in a variety of techniques on copper plates. But her aim was still basically to depict modern Western women in a Japoniste manner. Aspects of Japanese prints admired in the West included their fine, precise-yet-free line, their flat decorative patterning, and their lack of conventional vanishing-point perspective. In addition, these Japanese prints were full of color.

Cassatt made all these traits her own, as "The Letter" clearly and charmingly shows.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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