She was a woman who soared to the stars across the firmament of the male-dominated international art world. She was the only American, male or female, to become a member of the French Impressionists. Most women of her time were confined to the circumscribed world of marriage, homemaking and motherhood, but not her. Who is she? She is Mary Cassatt, certainly the greatest American female artist of her time, and arguably the greatest artist produced by any nation.
Born in Pittsburgh on May 23, 1844, this American artist studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia before traveling extensively throughout Europe. The daughter of an affluent businessman, Cassatt’s parents were not enthused with their daughter’s aspirations to become an artist, preferring instead for her to return home to marry and settle down. But the independent Cassatt made Paris her permanent home in 1874, the year of the first Impressionist Exhibition and Cassatt’s first Salon success. She met Degas in 1877 and the relationship had an immediate effect on Cassatt’s work. While she employed an impressionist style and exhibited at 4 of 8 Impressionist exhibitions, her paintings express a uniqueness of their own. Most famous for her mother and daughter paintings, Cassatt also called upon other motifs which depicted the world around her. Access to the cafes and corridors of her male counterparts were denied to women, yet Cassatt’s paintings are expressions of her ability to circumvent these limitations and reflect another aspect of Parisian modern life. She produced genre paintings and portraiture, and Cassatt’s depictions of women are ones of independent and powerful beings.
The first three decades of Cassatts career was largely shaped by outside influences- art school in the 1860s, the masters of realism in the 1870s, and the French Impressionists in the 1880s. The decade of the 1890s marks a period when her unique creativity and individual style at last emerged unfettered.1 Cassett experimented with a new media that would create a more linear effect. She used a drypoint technique, which involves scratching a sharp needle on a metal surface from which prints are made. This style suited her needs perfectly and she made produced over a hundred of these elegant works. It was an exciting art, of which Cassatt said, In drypoint you are down to the bare bones, you cant cheat.1
After Cassatt perfected the drypoint technique she began to work with etching and a new technique that placed her at the forefront of the new graphic arts movement in Paris. This new technique was called aquatint, a method of engraving by treating the surface of a copper plate with an acid to give the effect of a watercolor. With the combination drypoint and aquatint, Cassatt produced a series of 10-color prints that stunned the art world.
Woman Bathing; drypoint and aquatint on laid paper, plate: 14 3/8 x 10 1/2 in.,sheet: 17 x 11 3/4 in.; McNay Art Institute, McNay Art Institute, San Antonio, TX, Gift of Margaret Batts Tobin, is part of the 1891 print series that explores the private activities of women. The print seems to represent an expression of a semi-nude, voluptuous woman bathing with her toilette.
As an attempt to formally critique this print primarily on visual effects using the elements of it, it is most important to describe the strong use of line represented. The print is drawn in very simple lines, lines that highlight Cassatts impeccable draftsmanship. The sensuous curve of the womans back is an example of a lucid line. There are many straight as well, for example the lines that portray the mirror and those that compose the basin stand.
Line also plays and important role in relation to shape. There are many nice geometric shapes represented in this print due to the abundance of straight lines. The mirror and the door of the basin are examples of geometric squares. The Womans back also forms a somewhat geometric triangle. But, in addition to geometric shapes, there are also organic shapes as well. The various bottles that rest on the basin stand, the designs on the rug, and the pitcher next to the stand are all prime examples of organic shapes.
The use of form in this print suggests many a two-dimensional space. Cassatt renders the women other figures as two-dimensional shapes, while almost completely eliminating the traditional shading and tonal variations the create illusion of depth. The line that separates the wall and the floor behind the figures is the only suggestion of three-dimensional space.
Cassatt also exemplified excellent use of color and value in the print. The primary use of the rich dark value of the blue absorbs most of the print. The nice rose flesh tone of the woman stands out against the blue background along with the rest of the figures. The stripes on the womans pants are even complementary, which makes them appear very vividly opposed to the rest of the images.
Texture is apparent in this work of art. The richness of the scratched drypoint lines creates a very real texture. Cassatts perfection of drypoint shows us the bare bones of the work of art, the texture is permanent and intensely real.
Another element to consider in relation to the print is space. The woman consumes most of the space, creating very little negative space. The flat two-dimensional surface also shows most of the main images in the fore and mid ground. All the space is utilized in the most positive way.
In addition to applying the elements of art to Cassatts masterpiece, it also important to analyze the print by applying the principles of art.
Initially, starting with emphasis, that main focus is the woman. Her elongated body consumes the print from the top to bottom and is by far the focal point. The woman is also, along with the rest of the images, realistically proportionate. The basin, bottles, and pitcher seem as if they actually fit her needs.
Movement is heavily apparent in the print. By starting at the bottom of the womans wardrobe, eye movement is focused to the top of her head by following the stripes. Movement is then focused downward by following the womans arm, finally reaching the bottom of the print with focus on the pitcher. Triangular eye movement is therefore achieved.
Balance is also achieved the print with the assistance of movement. At a glance the artwork seem uneven, with the woman positioned majority on the right side. But, after focussing on the movement, balance can be achieved once you notice the items on the left.
Repetition and patter are also essential in this print. Cassatt repeated the use of blue uniformly in the print. She also used a consistent pattern in the womans outfit and in the rug. The contrast of the patterns also creates variety.
Finally, with the assistance of balance, emphasis, proportion, rhythm, variety, and most of all, movement, unity is formed. The picture is harmonized to perfection. The simplification of the plane, decorative patterning and magnificent use of color unites the print.
To interpret The Woman Bathing, one must relate this print to Cassatts strong attraction to Japanese art. Cassatt was one of the first to imitate the style. The mood and aesthetics of Japanese art seem to be absorbed in her artwork. The subject, the woman, can be interpreted as a simple woman, unselfconsciously cleansing herself. The modesty and seriousness of the print, along with the style, is intriguing, and creates extensive pleasure as you view the calmness of the woman bathing.
Cassatts vigor work, The Woman Bathing, shows absolute truthfulness in the everyday plain woman. The work is compelling and successful. Simple in every effect, the richness in her lines is shown. Cassatts God given talents remain an inspiration to artists everywhere.
Craze. Sophia. Mary Cassatt. New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1998 (p55)