Just looking at this exquisite print, you can almost feel the weight of the child’s freshly bathed body resting in the crook of your arm, a chubby hand clasping the back of your neck. With a few spare lines, Mary Cassatt suggests the unconscious intimacy that exists between a baby and their carer.
A sense of immediacy in the quickly etched lines – the arms and legs fading off scratchily, apparently ‘unfinished’ – sits alongside a sense of contemplation: the quiet moment shared, the two heads in close communion, the gentle gaze of the carer with eyes only for the babe in arms.
Cassatt’s Baby’s back, as with her other prints, reveals her masterly drawing skill. She knows when to pay attention to the line, to strengthen it in order to convey solidity of form, as with the curve of the baby’s back, and when to let it go and trust that the eye has enough to complete the picture, as with the woman’s hand and skirt, which disappear. She adopts different techniques to different effect – using drypoint, which typically creates a rich, blurred texture, to suggest the featheriness of the baby’s hair, conveying a softness and tenderness in keeping with the subject.
Intimate impressionsMary Cassatt was one of the most successful American artists lured to study in Paris in the late 19th century. She was the only American and one of two females (the other was Berthe Morisot) invited to exhibit with the impressionists in the exhibitions that showcased their new approach to painting.
What are less well known about these artists are their experiments with printmaking. The very nature of printmaking seems at odds with the ethos of impressionism, with its emphasis on capturing the fleeting effects of light, of season, of weather on everyday scenes of the modern world. Yet a number of impressionist artists embraced printmaking, revelling in the opportunities offered by this tradition.1 Part of the appeal lay in the collaborative nature of their foray into this medium - sharing ideas, approaches and equipment. In contrast to their paintings, which were exhibited publicly and attracted much critical attention, many prints made by impressionist artists are relatively unknown and were circulated more privately. These works are more revealing of personal acquaintances and relationships.
Cassatt’s exploration of printmaking evolved through her relationship with important impressionists Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro. Degas’s work had made a powerful impression on Cassatt when she first encountered his paintings in an art dealer's window in 1875. She later wrote:
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.2
As a middle-class single woman, Cassatt was unable meet with her artistic male peers in cafés without attracting unfavourable attention and sullying her reputation. Instead she met with them privately and at exhibitions. Degas based a series of works on a visit with Cassatt and her sister, Lydia, to the Louvre. In these Degas immortalised Cassatt as a stylish spectator, first in pastel and later in print. Degas’s print offers a mirror image of the pastel – he draws onto the printing plate in the same orientation as he does the sketchpad. The setting is altered: Cassatt is repositioned in the Etruscan gallery instead of the picture halls. By doing so, Degas is conceiving the print as an independent work, not merely a reproduction of his initial picture.
Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: the Etruscan Gallery (1879-80) was intended to be reproduced in the prospective journal Le Jour et la Nuit, a collaborative venture between Pissarro, Degas, Cassatt, and Félix Bracquemond which was to present their experiments in impressionist printmaking. It was never realised, in part because of Degas’s restlessness but ultimately because his artistic temperament rendered him entirely unsuited to business.3 Although Cassatt’s mother, who took an active interest in her daughter’s career, berated Degas for causing them to ‘miss a golden opportunity’, the artist’s relationship with Degas endured.4 She had found in Degas an intellectual equal and later recalled that he was ‘magnificent, and however dreadful he was he always lived up to his ideals’.5
Pictures of the floating world
These artists explored the potential of printmaking as an artistic as opposed to utilitarian and purely reproductive practice. They sought out the ambiguities and peculiarities of various techniques – drypoint, etching, monotypes, aquatint – voracious in their appetite for finding new ways to capture the changing world around them. In this exercise, Japanese ukiyo-e was a great influence. Ukiyo-e woodblock prints flourished in Japan as a popular art for the masses from the late 17th to early 19th century and became available to Europeans following the ‘opening up’ of Japan to the west in the 1850s and 60s. From the 1860s Japanese art, culture and aesthetics provided a key source of inspiration for artists, especially the impressionists. The word ukiyo-e translates as ‘pictures of the floating world’ and these prints typically focused on the activities of daily life presented with a frankness uncommon in popular western art. They often depicted courtesans at their leisure – bathing, reading, writing, cutting their toenails–- seen from an almost voyeuristic perspective, as in Suzuki Harunobu’s Two women washing their hair (about 1767–68).
These images suggested to Cassatt and others that the candid and prosaic could provide opportunities to depict new subjects in new ways. Degas’s The tub (1886) indicates a knowledge of works such as Harunobu’s and suggests these brought a fresh way of seeing to his work. Degas’s pastel incorporates the radical framing, unusual viewpoints, flattening of space, and abrupt transitions from foreground to distance that are characteristic features of ukiyo-e prints.
Likewise, Cassatt emulates closely the stylistic qualities of ukiyo-e in Woman bathing (1891), one of a set of 10 colour prints made following her inspirational visit to an exhibition of Japanese prints at the École des Beaux Arts in 1890. She described her reaction to her contemporary, female impressionist Berthe Morisot: ‘I went and came away in ecstasy’.6
Like Degas, Cassatt puts to work the lessons learnt from ukiyo-e prints: the woman viewed goes about bathing as if oblivious to the viewer; the picture plane is flat; aquatint is used to provide colour effects in solid blocks with no shading or modelling of form; and line has been carefully used to delineate form. This and Cassatt’s other prints drew high praise from Camille Pissarro when exhibited in her solo show at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in 1891. He wrote to his son, Lucien, also an artist and printmaker:
You remember the effects you strove for at Eragny? Well, Miss Cassatt has realized just such effects, and admirably: the tone even, subtle, delicate, without stains on seams, adorable blues, fresh rose, etc . . .7
The patterning on the floor in the foreground of Woman bathing and the oriental-style jug recalls that of the interiors and fabrics in prints such as Eishoshai Choki’s Mother and child catching fireflies (about 1793), where the plaid, star, and floral patterns are juxtaposed in a two-dimensional plane in the foreground. Choki’s print is also of an intimate subject, a shared and affectionate moment between a mother and child enjoying an evening walk together.
The relationships between mothers or carers and their children became a central focus of Cassatt’s work from the late 1880s. It is this body of work that has secured her popular reputation. Cassatt herself never married nor had children, knowing this would be incompatible with her chosen career as a painter. Consequently there is something poignant and hugely touching about her intimate, unsentimental portraits of modern motherhood.
While the subject of mother and child has a continuous place in the history of art, it shed its religious overtones in the late 19th century.8 Although Cassatt and Morisot were part of a movement that advocated for subjects drawn from modern life, they necessarily saw a different modernity from their male peers. Deprived of access to the gritty underworld of the cafés and theatres so favoured by Édouard Manet and Degas, they focused instead on the domestic in their art, regularly finding their subject matter close to hand. Morisot’s investigation into printmaking was brief, resulting in eight charming drypoints, one of which, The drawing lesson, depicts the artist and her daughter Julie in a private moment, heads together over a work in progress.
Cassatt’s family often sat for her work as she pictured them at the opera, reading the morning newspaper, or crocheting in the garden; but in contrast to Morisot, she often used models for her studies of mothers and children. She preferred to pose rural woman, who apparently held their children with an ease that was not evident in upper-class mothers reliant on nurses to raise their children.9 Woman with child portrays a young woman with a child, who Cassatt met when her family was holidaying in Mantes, 30km west of Paris, in the summer of 1889. Cassatt chose her sitter for the effect she offered, not because they shared a direct relationship. In spite of this, Cassatt conveys a remarkable degree of intimacy. Working in pastel, no doubt influenced by Degas, Cassatt almost caresses the medium, skilfully blending colour and line to create a pensive study of a mother and child.
Cassatt’s prints seldom relate to existing works; she most often worked directly onto the plate with no preparatory drawings. Hence it is interesting that a pastel relating to Baby’s back exists. At the window (about 1890) depicts a mother holding her child in one arm, as she pulls back the curtain. It is clearly a reverse image of Baby’s back, but in this instance, lovely as the pastel may be, I would trade it for the print any day. Baby’s back is a work that could have provoked Degas to protest, ‘I will not admit that a woman can draw that well’10 Cassatt evidently could, and did.
- Antonio Lant, ‘Purpose and practice in French avant-garde print-making of the 1880s’, Oxford Art Journal, vol. 6, no. 1, 1983, pp. 18-29.
- Nancy Mowll Mathews, Mary Cassatt: A life, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, p. 114.
- Michel Melot, The impressionist print, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996, p. 154.
- Mrs Cassatt to her son, cited in Melot, The impressionist print, p. 154.
- GTM Shackelford, ‘Pas de deux: Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas’, in Judith Barter, Mary Cassatt: Modern woman, New York: Harry N Abrams, 1998, pp. 109-43.
- Melot, The impressionist print, p. 212.
- Adelyn Breeskin, Mary Cassatt: Pastels and color prints, Washington DC: Smithsonian Institute Press for the National Collection of Art, 1978, p. 9.
- Stewart Buettner, ‘Images of modern motherhood in the art of Morisot, Cassatt, Modersohn-Becker, Kollwitz’, Woman’s Art Journal, vol. 7, no. 2 (Autumn 1986-Winter 1987), pp. 14-21.
- Breeskin, Mary Cassatt: Pastels and colour prints, p. 9.