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.

The artist’s work is an investigation that is essentially dynamic and open-ended. I can’t help but think of what Thomas Hess wrote in the 1950s about Willem de Kooning’s two-year struggle with his Woman I: “The stages of the painting…are neither better nor worse, more or less ‘finished,’ than the terminus…. Some might appear more satisfactory than the ending, but this is irrelevant. The voyage, on the other hand, is relevant: the exploration for a constantly elusive vision.”

As odd as it might be to compare the intimist Cassatt to an Abstract Expressionist like de Kooning, the supposedly macho paint-slinger, the two had more in common than you’d think. In 1959, de Kooning explained to an interviewer how his paintings came about:

When I was painting those figures, I got a feeling like I came into a room someplace—and I was introduced to someone—just for a fleeting second, like a glimpse—I saw somebody sitting on a chair—I had a glimpse of this thing—you know, this happening. And I got interested in painting that—it’s like [a] frozen glimpse…. I watch out of the window, and it happens over there. Or I can sit in this chair—sit and think, and I have a little glimpse of something. That’s the beginning, and I find myself staying with it—not so much with this particular glimpse—[but] with the emotion of it…. Each new glimpse is determined by many, many, many glimpses before.

Far from the cliché of “action painting” as a rough and tumble of muscular effort, de Kooning thought that his painting was based on the perception that a person sitting in a chair might have of another person likewise seated, and realizing that amid all this sitting, the activity of perception encompasses all sorts of fugitive “glimpses.” In this, he was only following the insights of Cassatt and her friends. The preponderance of seated figures among the more than sixty Cassatt prints on display should not delude one into imagining that her art celebrates passivity or ease. The probing, critical, self-revising edge of her testing lines and robust masses—her impatience with what has been done, and her tireless persistence in what is to be done next—was above all relentlessly active.

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Cassatt is best known for her depictions of women with small children. The first book about her, published 100 years ago, was subtitled Un peintre des enfants et des mères, and the current exhibition does not stint on les enfants. But they are nothing like the infant Christ of Renaissance art: upright, alert and making gestures of blessing toward the devout beholder. They are squirmy, floppy, recalcitrant, sometimes cranky beings. Although Cassatt never depicts them spitting up or having their diapers changed, such episodes could transpire at any moment. And their inability to stay still and hold a “proper” pose, or to allow their caretakers (whether mothers or nannies) to do the same, makes them ideal subjects for a painter out to catch little glimpses of things, transient states of being. Cassatt said the reason she liked to paint children was that they are “natural and truthful. They have no arrière-pensée.” In this, they embodied everything the new painting of her generation was seeking—sincerity and ingenuousness—and that academic convention opposed. To call a painter “naïve” could be a compliment.

In an early state of Baby’s Back, from around 1890, which shows a woman holding a naked child on her arm, its face half-concealing her own, the emphasis is on the two heads, and above all on the dissimilarity of their gazes: the baby stares ahead wide-eyed while the woman’s eye is all on the baby, at whom she seems to be looking questioningly, even distrustfully. In a later version of the same print, the heads are less heavily emphasized and the infant’s body is rendered in greater detail. One senses the weight of it on the woman’s arm, which itself is only vaguely indicated, and the downward pull of its little legs hanging down, which are not in the first version. It’s as if the boundaries between adult and child are subject to constant revision.

The intimate woman/child dyad would be for Cassatt what haystacks were for Monet or Mont Sainte-Victoire for Cézanne. It was a subject almost unknown to European painting outside a now-archaic devotional context, although after Cassatt took it up others, including Renoir, would follow suit. The art historian Griselda Pollock has speculated that it was specifically Cassatt’s experiments with printmaking that showed her how she could make this theme a basis for formal experimentation. The “quality of childishness with its struggle to master movements,” Pollock writes, is in Cassatt’s work “tracked down by diligent artistic processing.”

In 1890, Cassatt saw an exhibition of ukiyo-e prints at the École des Beaux-Arts. Thunderstruck, she determined to make color prints in emulation of the Japanese, and not with traditional woodblocks but instead by using a mixture of drypoint and aquatint. Although the different states of Cassatt’s color prints continue to show the development of her thinking, the individual images no longer reveal much of the processes of revision that underlie them. The formal closure of these works creates a very different effect from that of the monochromatic prints Cassatt had been making up till then. The force of concision in the color prints can be astonishing, but I find a lessening of visual suggestiveness, of the sense of possibility. As Cassatt’s art entered the new century, it became more stolid, more conservative, less daring, and while those characteristics are absent from her color prints of the 1890s, I can’t help thinking that the prints are leading her in that direction. In contrast to Cassatt’s previous practice, the later states of her color prints really are more finished, more “satisfactory” than the earlier ones. It’s notable that in this period Cassatt tried to revive Degas’s old idea of a collective effort at popularizing art through prints. “I should like to feel that amateurs in America could have an example of my work, a print or an etching for a few dollars,” she explained. She imagined a series of color etchings by leading artists such as herself and John Singer Sargent, which could be “within reach of the comparatively poor.”

The last works in the present exhibition date from 1898, when Cassatt still had sixteen years of artmaking ahead of her, before failing eyesight would force her to stop in 1914. Cassatt died in 1926. Being childless and estranged for some time from her remaining family (partly on account of their opposition to her activities on behalf of women’s suffrage), she willed her estate to her maid.

In the June 20, 2011, issue, Barry Schwabsky wrote that Édouard Manet has become a popular painter, yet he remains a difficult and unpredictable one.