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The Feminine Ideal

A new exhibition examines the depiction of women by Mary Cassatt and her Parisian cohorts
After the Bath

Heather Lemonedes Curator of Drawings

After the Bath c. 1901. Mary Cassatt. Pastel; 66 x 100 cm (sheet). Gift of J. H. Wade 1920.379


In October, one of the most beloved works from the museum’s collection—Mary Cassatt’s After the Bath, from about 1901—will be featured in Mary Cassatt and the Feminine Ideal in 19th-Century Paris in the prints and drawings galleries. The exhibition will provide visitors with the opportunity to enjoy the museum’s rich collection of works on paper by Cassatt. In her paintings, drawings, and prints, Cassatt examined women throughout the course of their lives from infancy to adulthood and old age. She painted, drew, and etched women as daughters, mothers, sisters, matrons, and, perhaps most importantly, as participants in a world that was in the midst of upheaval and transformation. In the exhibition, Cassatt’s drawings and prints of modern women will be shown alongside her contemporaries’ images of women, highlighting the artists’ varied interpretations of what constituted the feminine ideal in late 19th-century Paris.

An American “aristocrat” from Pittsburgh, the well-educated Cassatt had sufficient spirit to overcome her parents’ opposition to an artistic career. She began studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia but persuaded her father to let her study abroad, and in 1865 she and her mother settled in Paris, reluctantly departing just before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Ambitious and single-minded, Cassatt returned to Paris at age 29 in 1873, making it her permanent home and eventually earning the reputation as the American Impressionist from Pennsylvania.

Cassatt met Edgar Degas in 1877, beginning a friendship that would have profound impact on her artistic development and career. Convivially, they visited museums and galleries together, shopped for her clothes and hats, and worked in each other’s studios. Two years into their acquaintanceship, Degas invited her to exhibit at the fourth Impressionist exhibition where her paintings of women were praised as displaying “a most remarkable sense of elegance and distinction” and deemed worthy of “serious attention” by critics Edmond Duranty and Philippe Burty. After the exhibition closed, Degas invited Cassatt, along with Camille Pissarro and Félix Bracquemond, to contribute to his new journal, Le Jour et la Nuit (Day and Night), in which he planned to publish original prints that would experiment with light and shadow. Although Degas’s enthusiasm flagged and the project never came to fruition, he introduced Cassatt to printmaking, the medium in which she would achieve her greatest innovations. At the fifth Impressionist exhibition in 1880, along with oil paintings and pastels, Cassatt exhibited a selection of her first etchings. The museum is fortunate to own a pair of works that represent Cassatt’s early experiments as a printmaker. A drawing in the collection, Knitting in the Library, posed for by the artist’s mother in 1881, was used to make one of Cassatt’s first soft-ground etchings. The juxtaposition of the working drawing with an impression of the rare print will highlight her working practice and introduce visitors to a technically daring side of the artist perhaps previously unfamiliar.


In the Omnibus

The Fitting

In the Omnibus 1890–91. Mary Cassatt (American, 1844–1926). Color drypoint and aquatint; 36.6 x 26.8 cm (platemark). Bequest of Charles T. Brooks 1941.71

The Fitting 1890–91. Mary Cassatt. Color drypoint and aquatint; 42.7 x 31.4 cm (sheet). Bequest of Charles T. Brooks 1941.72


Given that she was enthralled by color, it is not surprising that Cassatt would eventually aspire to make colored etchings. The first evidence of her interest in making color prints is found in a well-known letter to her friend, the artist Berthe Morisot. Written on April 15, 1890, after the opening of a monumental exhibition of 725 Japanese ukiyo-e prints at the École des Beaux-Arts, Cassatt wrote:

You could come and dine here with us and afterward we could go to see the Japanese prints at the Beaux-Arts. Seriously you must not miss that. You who want to make color prints you couldn’t dream of anything more beautiful. I dream of it and don’t think of anything else but color on copper. Fantin [Latour] was there on the 1st day I went and was in ecstasy. 

Japanese prints were well known to Cassatt and her contemporaries long before this major exhibition; she was an avid collector of prints, porcelains, and decorative fans from Japan. The vast exhibition immersed visitors in the intense color, bold outlines, contrasting decorative patterns, surprising foreshortenings, and dramatic cropping characteristic of ukiyo-e prints. The subjects of the Japanese woodcuts—mothers and children, women at the toilette, social visits and tea drinking—were by then established themes in Cassatt’s own work. The exhibition inspired her to translate the densely worked surfaces of her paintings of women into equally colorful but vastly simplified—even stylized—compositions. Her letter to Morisot foreshadowed the passion with which she would approach the challenge of making a suite of ten color prints, equal in style and beauty to the Japanese woodcuts she so admired. Cassatt printed the suite herself with the assistance of a professional printer, known to us only as Monsieur Leroy. For the line work, Cassatt used drypoint or soft-ground, and for the flat planes of brilliant color she applied specially mixed colors directly to passages on the plate prepared with aquatint. Thus she was able to achieve different effects in each impression, varying the color subtly, or at times dramatically. Cassatt printed the suite in an edition of only 25, and today they are extremely rare and highly prized. The museum’s six prints from the series will all be on view in the exhibition, and the museum’s preparatory drawing for one print in the series, The Letter, will be shown alongside an impression of the print on loan from the McNay Art Museum, San Antonio.

The exhibition is organized thematically, juxtaposing Cassatt’s images of bourgeois women and mothers and children with works on paper addressing similar themes by Morisot and Auguste Renoir. Women of 19th-century Paris outside of Cassatt’s purview—rural laborers, laundresses, dancers, and prostitutes—were frequent subjects for her male contemporaries. Drawings in pastel, watercolor, and red chalk, as well as etchings and lithographs, by Pissarro, Degas, Édouard Vuillard, Édouard Manet, and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec represent women of the era from a variety of perspectives, addressing the complex and often fraught idea of “the modern woman” in late 19th-century Paris.  


Cleveland Art, September/October 2012