Like many Impressionists in the late 19th century, Mary Cassatt was deeply influenced by Japanese woodblock prints.
Cassatt was one of the few professional women artists of the 19th century. Her œuvre is expansive, often defined by experimentation, although she is most well-known for her intimate depictions of mothers and children.
We’re going to look at several of her works made after she had visited an exhibit of Japanese woodblock prints, or ukiyo-e prints, in Paris, which had a significant impact on her career.
About Mary Cassatt
Mary Cassatt was an American who spent most of her life in France, where she mingled and exhibited with Impressionists such as Edgar Degas.
As a woman artist, she faced countless adversities. For one, her family didn’t want her to become a professional artist, but she kept trying nonetheless, at one point saying, “I am independent! I can live alone and I love to work.”
As she cultivated her career in Europe, she criticized how the Salon would often dismiss paintings by women with contempt.
She became known as an outspoken against the art establishment—to the distaste of some within the community—and soon, she started exhibiting with the openly-criticized burgeoning Impressionist movement. She remained with them until 1886, at which point she no longer grouped herself with any one movement and fully embraced experimentation.
Understanding Japanese Woodblock Prints
Before we get into how this influence is reflected in Cassatt’s art, let’s talk about the formal qualities of Japanese woodblock prints of the ukiyo-e genre, which flourished from the 17th–19th centuries in Japan.
Ukiyo-e art typically portrayed famous actors, wrestlers, landscapes, and scenes of daily life, and included both woodblock prints and paintings.
In 1853, Japan opened its borders to world trade, ending a period of cultural and economic isolation. Throughout the following decades, the West was infused with Japanese influence in several ways—one being the world of fine art, where ukiyo-e prints flourished in popularity.
Quickly, aspects of ukiyo-e prints surfaced in the work of many creatives, including van Gogh, Whistler, and of course, Cassatt.
Formally, ukiyo-e art has several distinct qualities deserving of an article of its own. Briefly, its major characteristics are large planes of flat color, bright hues, asymmetric compositions, drastic foreshortening, decorative patterns, fine lines, and simplified figures.
Woman Bathing was among a series of drypoint and aquatint prints Cassatt made in 1890, right after seeing the ukiyo-e print exhibition. Every work in the series of 10 prints displays her interest in Japanese art while being distinctly her own hand.
In this work, a woman leans over a basin, her back to the viewer. It’s a scene of a woman grooming herself in a moment of quiet and private daily routine. Through a seemingly simple line, such as the curve of the woman’s back, Cassatt’s drawing skills shine.
Formally, Woman Bathing employs fine but strong linear work, large planes of flat color, and organic patterns. In particular, the shapes on the carpet are a decorative element that were so common in ukiyo-e prints.
Also part of the set of prints made in 1890, The Coiffure has many of the influences of ukiyo-e prints on Cassatt’s that we’ve talked about so far.
In particular, you can see similarities to a print by Japanese artist Takashi Ohisa, pictured above. Both prints are full of fine lines and light, airy, colors, although Cassatt always avoids black, a color considered taboo among Impressionists.
You’ll also notice the coexistence of strong, straight lines with long sinuous ones in this work, often present in ukiyo-e prints as well.
Lastly, although the woman is not completely dressed yet, Cassatt does not sexualize her—it's worth noting that this is a considerable departure from many depictions of females in Western art of the time. With every image of a woman, Cassatt always employs a level of seriousness to the composition.
The Letter is another print from her very productive printmaking period years of 1890 and 1891.
In this print, a woman sits at a desk, sealing a letter. It's an interior scene, this time focusing on an activity that many women would have spent a good amount of time doing during Cassatt’s time: managing correspondence. Again, we are reminded that women were quite restricted in activities they could do outside the home.
A particularly strong element here is the extensive use of patterning. Loose organic patterns populate the woman’s dress and the wallpaper, contrasting starkly with the strong lines of the desk.
The Boating Party is a bold 35x46 inch oil painting that Cassatt painted in 1893–1894.
Again, she utilizes large, flat planes of simplified color and elements of decorative pattern, namely on the woman’s dress.
The unusual angles and dramatic composition are perhaps most visually interesting in The Boating Party. The man’s back takes up nearly a third of the composition, his hand holding an oar extending dramatically across the painting, and the boat is intensely foreshortened.
Additionally, the cropping is unusual without being awkward. The woman’s head nearly goes off the plane, as does the man’s back, and the water’s edge is just barely in the picture.
This unusual cropping and dramatic physical orientation of figures was quite common in ukiyo-prints. All things considered, this painting is more subdued in its references to Japanese art—perhaps simply due to the different medium—than her earlier aquatint series, but the influences are undoubtedly still there.
The Child’s Bath, an oil painting made around the same time as The Boating Party, is another lovely example of a woman-and-child theme that incorporates elements of Japanese woodblock prints.
We see some flattened planes and many decorative patterns, such as on the carpet, walls, and the woman’s dress—you’ll notice these are common areas Cassatt chooses to impose patterns in all of her work. Her color palette is a bit darker than her earlier work, but it remains a tender and careful moment of observation of an everyday scene.
The Timeless Work of Mary Cassatt
In her later painting years, she stuck with her established style, resisting the movements of Post-Impressionism and Fauvism. Cassatt kept on creating work until 1911, when she lost most of her eyesight.
Now, we know her as a pioneering woman who worked relentlessly to become a successful and respected artist. Her pictures of private moments are timeless, and she has been called one of “les trois grandes dames”, or the three great ladies, of Impressionism.