|Mary Cassatts prints are a central part of her artistic legacy. She is one of a small number of major artists who seems to have intuitively and completely understood the special character and unique possibilities of working on copper. This collection of prints and drawings, acquired by Ambroise Vollard directly from the artist and augmented by him with a few choice impressions from major early collections, is extraordinary in its breadth and in the number of aesthetic revelations it provides. There are beautiful examples of Cassatts early prints, many of which were done in a studio that Degas set up for himself and his artist friends. Included is a stunning group of proofs and final states of what is recognized as her greatest contribution to the history of printmakingthe set of ten color prints inspired by the immensely influential 1890 exhibition in Paris of Japanese woodblock prints.
The particular thrill of viewing this collection is that these works have been preserved in portfolio since the time they were done, so that their immediacy and freshness have come down to us undiminished by the accidents of time.
As a young artist, Cassatt had rejected academic drawing as antithetical to her pictorial sensibility, and she was happy to embrace the anti-Salon ideals of the Impressionists. Her experimentation with the creative alchemy of etching led her to discover first the seductive atmosphere of soft-ground and aquatint and then the elegance of drypoint. In printmaking, there was no need for her to confront the expectations of conventional pictorial detail and completeness. She could concentrate all of her attention on capturing, with a few deft strokes, the facial expressions and the telling gestures of her models, while completing her image by the skillful manipulation of printing ink left on the surface of the plate, or with broad areas of color or pattern.
Cassatts earliest significant prints were done in the studio of Edgar Degas, and later she set up her own press. Throughout her career, she did most of the printing herself, pulling proofs as she went along. It is an indication of the importance she attached to her many experiments in printmaking that she retained such a large body of this work in her collection, though she typically did not bother to meticulously document the stages or states of her work. Because most of her prints were not done with a view to publication, they were printed in few examples and are extremely rare. The studio collection, as it has come down to us today, spans Cassatts artistic career as a printmaker. It includes eleven prints known only in the present impression,1 fourteen previously unknown states of prints,2 and several unique color variants.
A key work from her early period, 18791880, is In the Opera Box (No. 3) (Breeskin 22), done in Degass studio and intended as Cassatts contribution to Le Jour et la nuit, a publication project conceived by Degas but never brought to fruition. This image shows the influence of Degas in the composition and choice of subject. Yet, even at this early date, we see personal characteristics that anticipate her later color prints in the way she has transformed a three-dimensional scene into a two-dimensional composition, impressionistically justified here by the flattening effect of a brightly lit subject in a darkened theater. The preceding works in this catalogue show the artist experimenting with the manipulation of tonal values and working towards her final resolution of the composition.
It is a tribute to his respect for Cassatt that Degass intended contribution to Le Jour et la nuit was the soft-ground, drypoint and aquatint, Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery, which is one of his most carefully studied and meticulously executed compositions. (A fine impression of this work purchased by Vollard from the Degas estate sale is included in this exhibition.)
Some examples of Cassatts early use of aquatint, such as Mlle Luguet Seated on a Couch (Breeskin 49), show a romantic homage to Goyas virtuosic use of contrasting areas of aquatint grain. Others elegantly exploit this medium as a compositional device for flattening and abstracting pictorial space, as in Before the Fireplace (No. 1) (Breeskin 64).
To appreciate the way in which Cassatts distinctive strengths as a draftsman are revealed in her drypoints, one has only to look at Babys Back (Breeskin 128), the second in the famous series of twelve drypoint subjects that Cassatt exhibited at the 1890 Peintres-Graveurs exhibition held at Durand-Ruel. This print is essentially adapted from a pastel, At the Window (BrCR 179), now in the Musée dOrsay, Paris. In comparing the two, one can see immediately that the artist completely restudied the expressions and gestures, and produced a work of art more elegant in line and more sharply characterized. As in so many of her prints, Cassatt exploited the elimination of irrelevant details of the surrounding space to distill an image of universal appeal.
The studio collection includes numerous discoveries of previously unknown states of rare and unpublished prints, e.g., Portrait Sketch of Mme M . . . ; Mimi Seated, Wearing a Sleeveless Dress; On the Balcony (Breeskin 114, 115, and 120); and Mother Berthe Holding Her Child (Breeskin 126); as well as extraordinary sequences of states, such as those for The Mandolin Player (Breeskin 130) and Reflection (Breeskin 131), which also include two previously unrecorded states. The unique print, Sketch for The Bath (Breeskin 142+), one of the works Cassatt executed directly before her series of ten color prints, is as close as one can get to a true sketch on copper and vividly illustrates the way in which the medium can be used to enhance the completeness and communicative power of a spontaneously rendered scene.
Among the set of ten great color prints, the series of impressions of The Bath (Breeskin 143) gives some idea of the serious exploration the artist went through in refining the devices that she would use throughout this series for allocating the compositional elements among her printing plates. Within this group too there are unique and/or newly discovered states (see The Bath, Breeskin 143; The Lamp, Breeskin 144; and The Fitting, Breeskin 147); and in the case of The Fitting, not only do we have new states and variant proofs, but these differences and discoveries greatly add to our appreciation of the range of Cassatts aesthetic experiments with choice and harmony of colors. (See details of the penultimate and final states.) The impression of The Fitting with the patterned wall printed in russet-brown surprises the viewer in its fresh intensity, while the predominately blue hues in the final state are dazzling and unexpected. No one who knows her color prints could have expected to find such a radical experimental combination in an impression of the final state. In the end, however, the artist, perhaps influenced by the hundred-year-old examples of Utamaros prints she had so much admired (see Mathews and Shapiro, p. 65), reverted to a more subdued color balance for the usual printing of the final state. (Since Cassatt inked the plates individually and slightly differently for each impression, no two impressions are exactly alike.)
But even those works in this collection that are closer to familiar color combinations are surprising in the intensity and freshness of their color: the hot rose of the dress in The Omnibus (Breeskin 145), the deep blue of Woman Bathing (Breeskin 148), the exceptionally strong, powdery blue background in Mothers Kiss (Breeskin 149), the effect of which has been likened to the mica dusted on the surface of a Japanese woodblock print.
Though conceived as a set, this remarkable series of works shows a wide range of approaches to composition, from the classical pyramid of The Bath, with its generalized background, to those showing the flattened, diagonal space of a Japanese print.
Between 1893 and 1897, Cassatt executed several more color prints, a few of which directly explore the free application of printing inks to unetched areas of the copper plate. Very little of the color work in The Banjo Lesson (Breeskin 156) is etched on the plate, but is instead freely applied in a monotype fashion; and the unique color variant of Peasant Mother and Child (Breeskin 159) shows the artist using monotype in a painterly way to extend her composition. The richness of this collection is again evident in the newly discovered early state of The Banjo Lesson and in the four impressions, including new states and variants, of Gathering Fruit (Breeskin 157), as well as in the first and beautiful final state impressions of Feeding the Ducks (Breeskin 158), and the differently inked impressions of By the Pond and Under the Horse-Chestnut Tree (Breeskin 161 and 162).
The prints from the last period of her work, from the end of the nineteenth century through the first decade of the twentieth, are represented here in exceptionally fine impressions of several well-known subjects (Margo Leaning against Her Mother; Reine and Margot Seated on a Sofa, No. 2; and The Crocheting Lesson, Breeskin 175, 177, and 178), and in several rare and unique examples, including the early impression of Margot Wearing a Bonnet, No. 1 (Breeskin 179). Included in this part of the catalogue is the only known impression of Katharine Kelso Cassatt (Breeskin 198+), which Breeskin had mistakenly dated to ca. 1905, but which clearly belongs in the context of her earlier work.
In one way or another, almost every work in this collection provides us with aesthetic surprises and delights, and enriches our understanding of the artists creative process. The studio collection as it now stands is unparalleled in private hands and indeed is barely matched by the finest museum collections.
Marc Rosen and Susan Pinsky
Marc Rosen Fine Art, Ltd., New York City
1. The eleven subjects in the studio collection that are unique impressions are: Sewing by Lamplight, Head of Margaret Sloane (No. 2), Sketch for The Bath, Two Heads: One Upside Down, Heads of Two Little Girls, Reine and Blond Baby with a Cat, Margot in a Poke Bonnet, Katharine Kelso Cassatt, Denise in Profile to Right with a Hand Mirror, Woman Trying on a Necklace before a Mirror, and Heads of Denise and Child (Breeskin 71+, 92+, 142+, 154+, 167+, 177+, 184+, 198+, 208+, 216+ and 218+).
2. The fourteen previously unknown states are for the following subjects: Mrs. Cassatt Reading to her Grandchildren (No. 2), Portrait Sketch of Mme M. . . ., Mimi Seated, Wearing a Sleeveless Dress, On the Balcony, Mother Berthe Holding Her Child, Reflection, The Mirror, The Lamp, The Fitting, Blanche without Her Hat, The Banjo Lesson, and Gathering Fruit (Breeskin 59, 114, 115, 120, 126, 131 [two states], 136, 144, 147 [two states], 154, 156, and 157), for which the final example in this collection is also a unique variant. This list does not include examples of unique inking or unique color combinations.