Mary Cassatt Revealed as a Great Printmaker

It has long been recognized that the American painter Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), who won considerable renown as a member of the Impressionist circle in Paris, was also one of the master printmakers of her generation in France. Yet with the recent discovery of a cache of more than 200 “lost” prints and drawings from the artist’s studio, we are now in a better position than ever before to comprehend the depth and intensity of purpose that Cassatt brought to this important aspect of her oeuvre .

This is what makes the exhibition Mary Cassatt: Prints and Drawings from the Artist’s Studio , which Marc Rosen Fine Art Ltd. has organized at the Adelson Galleries, an event of uncommon artistic interest. For it gives us our first comprehensive account of Cassatt’s personal archive of her work as a printmaker. It is thus bound to be a revelation, even to people who have reason to believe they are already well acquainted with Cassatt’s achievements. And for anyone with a special interest in the aesthetics and connoisseurship of modern printmaking, this show and its scrupulously annotated catalog are not to be missed.

Moreover, the story of this recovery of the artist’s personal archive is almost as interesting as the work itself. Born to a wealthy Pennsylvania family, Cassatt traveled to Europe for the first time at the age of 22, and it was there that she firmly committed herself to the life of art. Less than a decade later, she had permanently established herself in Paris, and by 1879 she was exhibiting her paintings with the Impressionists, having been drafted into the ranks of the Paris avant-garde by no less an eminence than Edgar Degas, in whose studio she created her first prints. Thereafter, printmaking became an integral part of her work as an artist, even at times eclipsing painting itself as her primary interest.

It was so compelling an interest that Cassatt made it a regular practice to withhold certain prints for a collection of her own. It wasn’t until the period immediately preceding the First World War, as age (she was in her 60’s) and failing eyesight were bringing her career (but not yet her life) to a close, that she was persuaded to part with the entire “studio collection” of her own prints. She sold it, however, not to Paul Durand- Ruel, the dealer who had long represented her work both in France and the United States-and with whom she had had, over the course of their collaboration, many disagreements-but to Ambroise Vollard, who represented the new Paris avant-garde. (It was Vollard who gave Picasso and Matisse their first solo exhibitions in Paris.)

Exactly why Vollard never attempted either to exhibit or to sell the Cassatt collection remains unknown. When Vollard himself was killed in a car crash on the eve of the Second World War, his heirs sold the entire trove to a French collector-who, oddly enough, never exhibited any part of it either, but who apparently did show certain specimens of it to interested parties.

One of these was Marc Rosen, then head of Sotheby’s print department, who took up the pursuit of the Cassatt collection in the 1970’s. Securing this bounty seems to have required inordinate patience, however-some two decades, in fact, by which time Mr. Rosen had become a private dealer and the French collector had died. It was from the collector’s heirs that Mr. Rosen and his partner, Susan Pinsky (who had succeeded him for a time as head of Sotheby’s print department), finally acquired the Cassatt archive in the 1990’s.

The first two prints we encounter in the exhibition that Mr. Rosen and Ms. Pinsky have now brought to the Adelson Galleries instantly establish both Cassatt’s aesthetic debt to Degas and her own pictorial virtuosity. The first is Degas’ own print of Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery, 1879-1880 , which hangs next to Cassatt’s In the Opera Box (No. 3) [Femme au Théâtre] (1879-80), which was executed in Degas’ studio. Very quickly however, Cassatt establishes a style and a subject matter of her own, not only familiar (and some unfamiliar) depictions of mothers and children but in other aspects of the life of the time.

From the outset, we feel that we are in the presence of a master draftsman-and then, when the influence of the Japanese colored-woodblock print casts its spell on Cassatt (as it did on the entire Paris avant-garde), we are also in the presence of a master colorist, one as tireless in experimenting with printed inks as she had formerly been with the enchantments of the Impressionist palette. To see the four versions of The Fitting [Jeune Femme Essayant une Robe] (1890-91) side by side by side in this exhibition is itself an education in the evolution of the modern polychrome print.

What is finally most impressive, however, is the intensity of aesthetic concentration that Cassatt brought to the print media she embraced with such intelligence and success. Printmaking had clearly become a labor of love for Cassatt, and the compulsive labor she devoted to it was certainly exceptional. She had her own press; she pulled her own prints; she remained in control of every detail of a delicate but cumbersome process. In the Impressionist circle, only Degas can be said to have been her superior in printmaking.

It is not only as a printmaker, however, that the current exhibition and its catalog prompt us to reassess Mary Cassatt as an artist. This view of the collection she herself compiled of her own prints greatly enlarges our understanding of her entire achievement, and of the character of the gifts she brought to it. It is an exhibition that many people will want to revisit-especially if, like myself, you thought you already knew everything there was to know about the artist.

Mary Cassatt: Prints and Drawings from the Artist’s Studio remains on view at the Adelson Galleries, 25 East 77th Street, through Dec. 22. An exhibition drawn from the same archive is also on view at Meredith Long & Company in Houston, Texas.