Transient States: On Mary Cassatt
Mary Cassatt could have been a character in a Henry James novel: the spirited young American woman who goes to Europe seeking her destiny. In 1979, Adelyn Dohme Breeskin, who compiled the catalogues raisonnés of Cassatt’s work, evoked the artist’s background in suitably Jamesian tones, conjuring for her readers “that legendary period when art had as yet no firm foothold in this country, when artists were set apart as strange eccentrics, and even the thought of a woman artist was considered preposterous.” That period may be more of a legend than Breeskin presumes: Cassatt was neither the only female student in her time at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, nor the sole woman among the thousands of aspiring American artists trooping to Paris in those days to pursue their studies. But still, her father’s first response to her plan to go abroad was one that would have required a far less artful novelist than James to imagine: “I would almost rather see you dead.”
Yet Cassatt got her way (as it seems she usually did) and, chaperoned by her mother, went to Paris. Eventually her parents also pulled up stakes, leaving Philadelphia in order to live near their unmarried daughter, who had persevered with lessons until she was ready to teach herself, studying the old masters at the Louvre for untold hours. She understood that the great tradition was not being taught in the schools, and when she caught wind of Manet and Degas, she could recognize the real thing. Seeing a Degas pastel in a dealer’s window, she later recalled, “I used to go and flatten my nose against that window and absorb all I could of his art. It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it.” The admiration was mutual. Degas had already seen a painting of hers, remarking, “Here is someone who feels things as I do.”
It was Degas who invited Cassatt to exhibit with the Impressionists, and it was in his studio that she began her experiments as a printmaker. Later, she would obtain her own press. Although she was a remarkable painter, her work in prints was at times more radical. The title of the New York Public Library’s present exhibition, “Daring Methods: The Prints of Mary Cassatt” (on view through June 23), is altogether justified. Unfortunately, the prints are not done any favors by being shown in the library’s Print Gallery and Stokes Gallery, a couple of passageways more than rooms suited to the display of art. But it’s worth putting up with the people making their way to the restrooms to see these works. They are all from the library’s own holdings, thanks mainly to Samuel Putnam Avery, who in 1900 donated more than 17,000 prints. “His mission was to collect examples of the work of every contemporary artist he met or of whom he had heard,” according to the library’s print curator, Madeleine Viljoen.
Prints are typically thought of as a means for making multiple impressions of the same image, which can be disseminated more widely than unique paintings or drawings. This was certainly what Degas had in mind when he proposed to some friends that they put out a journal based on their etchings in order to gain more exposure for their work and make some money. (The journal never saw the light of day.) The Degas etching Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Paintings Gallery, 1879–80 demonstrates the oblique view of modern life that beguiled both artists, as well as the relentlessness of Degas’s print revisions. It is the nineteenth of the twenty states that he put the print through. Although Cassatt wasn’t as incessant, she did treat printmaking as an arena for experimentation more than dissemination. She made editions of relatively few of her prints, reworked them several times, and often went back to have another go at the image on a different plate, sometimes giving it a new title. Cassatt seems to have been most fascinated by the way printmaking allowed her to record the process of revision.
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Cassatt’s biographer, Nancy Mowll Mathews, attributes the artist’s affinity for printmaking to her impatience with academic drawing. That’s a shrewd observation; Cassatt used printmaking to keep the image in play, to evade the demand for finish. In the exhibition, there are several opportunities to see two or three versions of the same image and study how Cassatt revised a composition as she worked through her thoughts about it. And any single image can also disclose the restless exploratory nature of Cassatt’s immersion in her subject matter. The earliest of her prints at the NYPL is a costume study after Paul Gavarni from around 1878. In its first state, there is a rather conventional figure against a nearly blank ground; in the second, the ground has been filled in with dark mottling, and details have dropped out of the figure. In the third, the figure has become a vaporous near-absence amid a nocturnal space. All three versions were still in Degas’s studio at his death.
In the first version of The Sick Child, circa 1889, Cassatt has adjusted the angle of the elbow of the woman cradling the toddler, while in the second she essays the woman’s shoulders and forearm in various positions. A stable, potentially even monumental form—a seated woman holding a child in her arms—is revealed in each individual print. But in the sequence as a whole, the form is subject to endless modification, with Cassatt being faithful to many approximations of the truth of perception rather than a single declarative truth. The baby’s expression is woozy in the first two, distressed in the third. In the first version, its body seems stiff; in the second and third, rather limp. Presumably, Cassatt would not have known of Edvard Munch’s 1885–86 painting of the same name, which gave rise to five more paintings and numerous prints by him over the next four decades—but Munch, too, is one of those artists who kept redoing his works in order to keep them unfinished. But whereas it is implicit that Munch’s sick child is dying, with Cassatt illness is just another transitory state.