Mary Cassatt’s prints on exhibit at Rutgers University

This is part of a series from Ilene Dube of The Artful Blogger.

Her classic paintings of mothers and children in domestic settings seem to emphasize a traditional role for women, but Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was something of a feminist in her day. She went against her family’s wishes to study art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and later moved to Paris to pursue her art, putting career above marriage. For more than 100 years Cassatt has been a role model for women artists.

Although primarily known for her colorful paintings and pastels, Cassatt was also a printmaker. The Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University is showcasing 17 drypoints from its renowned collection, as well as five color prints from a private collection, in Mary Cassatt Prints: In the Company of Women, on view through March 3, 2013.

“With this exhibition, we focus on treasures from our collection that are rarely displayed due to their inherent fragility as light-sensitive works on paper,” says Suzanne Delehanty, director of the Zimmerli. “We continue our tradition of organizing important exhibitions of prints and focusing on the achievements of women artists. The works in this exhibition also complement the Zimmerli’s renowned collection of Japonisme by demonstrating the important influence of Japanese art on Cassatt’s print oeuvre.”

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Artist’s life

Cassatt was born in what is now Pittsburgh. Her father was a stockbroker and land speculator and her mother came from a family of bankers. The family moved to Philadelphia when Mary was 6.

Travel was an important part of her upper middle class upbringing. She took lessons in drawing and music and learned German and French. In Paris, Cassatt was exposed to Ingres, Delacroix, Corot, and Courbet as well as Degas and Pissarro, both of whom would be future colleagues and mentors.

Back in Philadelphia, at the age of 15, she began her studies at PAFA, where Thomas Eakins was a classmate. Frustrated drawing from casts, rather than a live model, Cassatt moved to Paris and studied privately with masters from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, which did not yet admit women.

Cassatt’s studio was in her Parisian apartment, as was typical of the time. Her art reflects her thinking about this living and working arrangement.

It was a tumultuous time in the French art world, as artists were breaking away from the Academy style and Impressionism was getting underway. Cassatt continued in the traditional style before eventually finding her way to Impressionism, taking a sketchbook with her to record what she saw outside of her studio.

In 1877, Edgar Degas invited her to join the group of Impressionist painters and assumed a mentoring role in her career.  She worked side-by-side with Degas, learning pastels and copper engraving. Inspired by his experiments in printmaking, Cassatt began making prints of her own. Cassatt broke new ground as an artist with her own experimental printmaking practice, employing drypoint (image is incised into a plate, usually copper, with a sharp point), aquatint (the plate is incised with rosin), and etching (the plate is incised with acid) in innovative combinations.

“Mary Cassatt’s prints stand out in the crowded field of avant-garde printmaking during the 1890s.  She found an ideal vehicle for her lucid depictions of contemporary women when she took up the drypoint needle,” says Christine Giviskos, Associate Curator of European Art at the Zimmerli, who organized In the Company of Women with Marilyn Symmes, Director, Morse Research Center for Graphic Arts and Curator of Prints and Drawings.

Ultimately Cassatt moved away from Impressionism toward a simpler, more straightforward style and found her place in tenderly observed scenes of mothers and their children. She was attracted to the simplicity and clarity of Japanese design.

The Zimmerli’s exhibition showcases Cassatt’s ability to capture the specific moods, relationships, and spaces of the women of her day.  The two girls intently studying in The Map, the dignified young woman in Reflection, and the focused mother and child in The Stocking are just three examples of Cassatt’s mastery in conveying moments of quiet female intimacy and absorption in thought.

The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.

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