Mary Cassatt was born in 1844 in Allegheny City (now part of Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania, she was recognized by the turn of the century as one of the preeminent painters both of her native country and of France, which she made her permanent home in 1875.
Mary Cassatt spent her childhood in Pennsylvania, and then lived with her mother in Europe from 1851 until 1858, studying in a number of cities including Paris, Parma, and Seville. Cassatt returned to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1861 to 1865 and in 1866 Cassatt went back to France, which she decided was best suited for her professional goals. There Mary spent much time studying works by artists living and deceased, and painted with Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Degas. Mary Cassatt's first public success came at the Salon of 1868 with a painting praised by a New York Times critic for its "vigor of treatment and fine qualities of color". Cassatt continued to exhibit at the Salon through the mid-1870s, and attracted the attention of Edgar Degas, who invited her to join the artists dedicated to the "new painting", the Impressionists.
At this time Mary Cassatt abandoned the somber palette and traditional subject matter of the Academic style in favor of the light-filled modern life compositions favored by her colleagues, among them Monet, Renoir, and Morisot. Cassatt quickly adopted impressionist techniques of applying paint rapidly from a bright palette. She developed her own subject matter, using her family members as models because her lifestyle, with aging parents, was much more confined than that of the male Impressionists who were able to spend time in cafes and paint subjects of society life. From 1879 to 1886 she was one of only three women to exhibit with the Impressionists, and the only American woman.
In 1878, at the request of Julian Weir, Mary Cassatt sent two of her paintings to him in America for exhibition with the Society of American Artists. These paintings were among the first Impressionist works to be shown in America. However, Mary Cassatt received much more attention in France than she ever did in the United States.
It was in the 1881 Impressionist exhibition that Mary Cassatt first displayed pictures of the mother and child theme for which she is best known. Though a sensitive painter of women and even the occasional male subject, Cassatt achieved her greatest success in the depiction of maternity. She elevated the genre from the realm of the sentimental or anecdotal through a careful attention to naturalistic pose and gesture, to the exchange of gazes between mother and child, and with the use of animated brush strokes and bright tones.
After the final Impressionist exhibition of 1886, Mary Cassatt began to experiment more widely, transforming her imagery with references to Old Master Madonna and Child paintings as well as Japanese prints. Her experiments with printmaking at this time resulted in one of the great graphic monuments of the nineteenth century: the set of ten color prints first shown at Galeries Durand-Ruel in Paris in 1891. Gradually Mary Cassatt abandoned Impressionist work for paintings that emphasized shapes and forms. Mary Casssatt did a series of color prints that combined drypoint, etching, and aquatint by studying Japanese woodblock techniques. From 1890, Mary Cassatt had her own printing press at her home.
Mary Cassatt resided in Europe, mostly at her country chateau near Paris, the remainder of her life except during the Franco-Prussian War when her family insisted she return to Philadelphia. She brought much of her work back with her, and unfortunately it was destroyed in a fire, so that the early European part of her career largely undocumented. She lived into the 20th century, but it is generally thought that the quality of her work declined. By 1914 she had to give up painting because of poor eyesight. Mary Cassatt died in 1926.
The printmaking techniques of Mary Cassat
Mary Cassatt studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for 4 years and then left for Paris in 1874 where she spent the rest of her life. In 1877, one of her paintings was accepted into the Salon where she met Edgar Degas, and together with Camille Pisarro, they planned the publication of a journal containing original prints. This spurred on Cassatt's early printmaking experiments - an area in which she excelled for her generation.
Cassatt's subjects are mainly women, mother and daughter, in domestic and intimate situations. She has produced color prints, color woodblocks, pastels, and paintings, though her lithography work is rare.
Mary Cassatt was also an important influence on American institutions and collectors by encouraging them to bring more European art, especially French Impressionism, into the USA. She was successful on several occasions as she was driven by the remembrance of the severe lack of European art in Pennsylvania.
Sara Wearing Her Bonnet and Coat is one of Cassatt's rare lithographic works. A transfer lithograph involves drawing the picture on paper first, then transferring it by pressure to the printing plate which is then inked, pressed, and printed back onto paper.
The subject, Sara of Mesnil-Theribus (a village outside of Paris), is one of two other girls which Cassatt used in a series of works. Cassatt worked with the same model several times; this technique was an influence of Degas. Sara's relaxed, natural pose is typical of Cassatt's style.
Mary Cassatt: The Technique of Drypoint
Acid biting is never used to produce a drypoint. The polished copper plated may be smoked to make the drawing more distinct, but other wise there is no coating applied. A needle-diamond point or other sharp tool-is drawn across the plate so that it actually cuts into the surface. As it penetrates tiny copper shaving are raised on one or both sides of the line and a small furrow is made. It is this furrow on the sides of a drypoint line that gives its characteristic appearance. When it is printed, ink lodges not only in the line made by the drypoint tool but is also held along the upraised edges of the furrow known as burr. When the plate is wiped preparatory to taking an impression, the ink held by the furrow is brushed along and feathered out, giving a soft furry appearance to the printed line. The burr on a drypoint is very delicate and will wear off after very few impressions are pulled. Therefore, most editions of drypoints are limited to a small number.
Even in small editions the impressions vary. This is true of many of Miss Cassatt's drypoints; the first impressions taken being richly inked with much burr showing, the last having already lost the burr on the most delicate lines such as the shading on the faces and other flesh tones. In drypoints such as "Mrs. Gardner Cassatt and Her Baby Seated Near a Window" and "The Baby's Back" the wearing down of the most delicate burr is very obvious, even after some reinforcing during the course of the very small edition. In the case of the 25 restrikes of 1923, the reinforcing has created very spotty lines, given the effect of an uneven inking.
Since Miss Cassatt used the drypoint process in order to teach herself to draw, the large majority of her prints, other than the series of twelve in 1889-1891 and about five other printed in an edition of twenty-five and one in an edition of fifty impressions, were printed in no more than five or six impressions, and for a number of them she used the backs of plates as well as the fronts. She thought of the majority of her prints as exercises, not finished works of art.
Technical Methods Used by Mary Cassatt - Hard Ground Etching
In hard-ground etching a plate-usually of copper-is coate with an acid proof coating that, when dry, is hard to the touch. This ground is melted onto a hot plate-daubed or rolled on. The drawing is then done with a hard tool-steel (sometimes with a diamond point), that scratches through the ground, exposing the metal surface. The plate is then put in an acid bath and the exposed metal is bitten away, leaving incised lines on the plate. The lines may be bitten from light to dark according to the varying lengths of time in the acid bath.
In the soft ground etching the metal plate-usually copper-is covered with a ground made up of hard ground mixed with tallow or sometimes agrease such as vaseline. The mixture is made into a ball, often wrapped in a silk cloth, and a portion of it is then melted onto a heated plate. Over the plate, with soft ground rolled or daubed on to cover it, is spread a sheet of drawing paper on which the artist sketches the design. The firm pressure of the pencil on the paper causes the soft ground to adhere to the back of the paper so the ground will pull away from the metal when the paper is lifted from the plate. The plate is thus exposed wherever the pencil has been drawn over the paper. The plate is then immersed in an acid bath for varied lengths of time according to the amount of ink to be held in the impression. The biting of the plate pits the surface of the areas drawn upon into ink pools which have a tendency to run together when closely juxtaposed.
The areas drawn are often outlines of figures. But may also be broad areas of ton similar to those bitten by aquatint but demanding fewer steps in the process of printmaking. The areas to remain unbitten are stopped out with a brush dipped in varnish usually made of a mixture of resin and alcohol. After one biting, lighter tones are then stopped out before a second biting where darker tones are wanted. The process can be repeated many times.
In the plate entitled "The Visitor", Miss Cassatt drew directly in or through the sof ground for the right hand figure, using either a stick or pencil to lift the soft ground and to expose the plate ready for biting.
A number of Cassatt's drawing on paper which was folded over and around a plate, with soft ground adhering to the reverse side of the paper, are still in existence.
Technical Methods Used by Mary Cassatt - Aquatint
In the aquatint process, etching is done in tone rather than in line. It is mostly used with soft ground or with straight etching or drypoint or a combination of one or more of theses processes. The aquatint ground may be laid in a number of different ways. Its main characteristic is that it is porous. It does not cover the surface of the plate completely and allows the acid to reach the metal through interstices between thousands of tiny resin dots. Instead of being an even coating of wax or tallow, aquatint ground is usually composed of particles of powder resin dusted or sifted onto the surface of the plate and then heated. The resin may also be dissolved in alcohol, spread over the plate and as the solvent then evaporates the resin particles are disposed on the surface of the metal as though they had been dusted on.
After the aquatint ground is laid, the sides and back of the plate are shellacked. All areas that are to remain white are stopped out with varnish, applied with a brush. (A grease pencil or crayon may also be used.) The plate is then placed in a mordant bath. The acid reaches the metal between the resin particles and eats a tine pocket around each of them. Light gray areas are bitten only a short time and then stopped out while darker areas are allowed a longer immersion in the acid.
Technical Methods Used by Mary Cassatt - Color Prints
Miss Cassatt's color prints are a masterful and unique contribution to the history of the graphic arts. Her entire graphic oeuvre reached a climax in the series of ten, first shown in her first solo exhibition held at Durand-Ruel's in Paris in 1981. The process she used for them is complicated and somewhat puzzling. We have some written descriptions written by her in letters to Samuel P. Avery, a New York collector, in January 1903 and to Mr. Winternitz, a print curator in New York in 1906, but they were written eight and eleven years after she had worked on even the last of her color prints. In both letters she abbreviated the description of the process not mentioning her use of soft ground etching, used both for drawing her outlines onto her plates and as she used it for tone in completing her designs. In the Avery letter, she wrote:
It is delightful to think that you take an interest in my work. I have sent with the set of my colored etchings all the 'states' I had. I wish I could have had more but I had to hurry on and be ready for my printer when I could get him. The printing is great work; sometimes we worked all day (eight hours) both, as hard as we could work and only printed eight or ten proofs in a day. My method is very simple. I drew an outline in drypoint, and transferred this to two other plates, making in all, three plates, never more, for each proof. Then I put on the aquatint wherever the color was to be printed; the color was painted on the plate as it was to appear on the proof. I tell you this because Mr. Lucas thought it might interest you, and if any of the etchers in New York care to try the method you can tell them how it is done. I am very anxious to know what your think of these new etchings. It amused me very much to do them although it was hard work.
In French the "gravures" refers to all intaglio or incise techniques, i.e., hard-ground etching, soft-ground etching, drypoint and engraving. Miss Cassatt translated "gravures" as just etching, without mentioning that the only etching used in her color prints is soft-ground.
In another letter three years later, she wrote:
I drew the outlines in drypoint and laid on a grain (the grain could be either aquatint or the grain of the paper as drawn with pencil over soft-ground) where color was to be applied, then color 'a la poupee.' (She applied her color with dolls of rags.) I was entirely ignorant of the method when I began, and as all the plates were colored by me, I varied sometimes the manner of applying the color. The set of ten plates was done with the intention of attempting an imitation of Japanese methods. Of course I abandoned that somewhat after the first plate and tried for more atmosphere.