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New Impressions of Mary Cassatt
Corey Piper, PhD, Brock Curator of American Art
The Chrysler recently acquired two important prints by Mary Cassatt, Gathering Fruit and Peasant Mother and Child, which help illuminate an important but underappreciated aspect of this acclaimed artist’s career. Cassatt is widely considered one of the most innovative and impactful American artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The only American artist to exhibit with the Impressionists, she forged a highly innovative style that operated at the vanguard of modern painting in France. During a career that spanned decades, she garnered success at the Paris Salon and institutional exhibitions back in the United States before exhibiting alongside artists like Claude Monet and Edgar Degas at the celebrated and groundbreaking Impressionist exhibitions. Her career was championed by the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel who sold her work to influential collectors in both Europe and the United States, ensuring her place as one of the pivotal figures of American art history. Well regarded as an impressionist painter, Cassatt was also an accomplished printmaker, and her color prints are considered among the most important achievements of American printmaking of the nineteenth century.
While she already had established a prominent reputation as an artist, a visit to an exhibition of Japanese color woodblock prints at the École des Beaux Arts in 1890 inspired her to pursue printmaking more seriously. She produced her first portfolio of ten color prints in 1890–91, which featured scenes of modern public and domestic life in Paris. After this initial group, Cassatt produced only around eight additional color prints during her lifetime, including these two works. Gathering Fruit was roughly based on the central mural panel that Cassatt created for the Women’s Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The second largest of Cassatt’s color prints, the complex figural arrangement highlights Cassatt’s achievement at balancing pattern, color, and line as well as her skill in employing a wide variety of printmaking techniques. Peasant Mother and Child is one of the latest color prints that Cassatt created. The work is left unfinished at the bottom, allowing insights into the artists working methods.
Cassatt was highly involved in the printmaking process, which encompassed several different techniques including etching, aquatint, and drypoint. The prints often went through many different states, and Cassatt intervened directly in inking the color plates, making each impression varied and unique. While many Impressionists worked in print, Cassatt’s color prints represent a singular achievement in their synthesis of Japanese and Impressionist styles. Despite the bold colors, her prints often focused in on the quiet moments of modern life of the late nineteenth century and offered particularly tender evocations of the bonds between mothers and their children.
Previously, the Chrysler held only one work by Cassatt, a major oil painting The Family created around the same time as these two prints. Like most of the Impressionists, Cassatt was equally dedicated to other media beyond oil painting, and these works will help better tell the story of Impressionism in France. The addition of these two works will allow the Museum to more fully illustrate the arc of this important artist’s career and also forge connection across the collection, showing how European and American artists were inspired by Japanese art and design.