As we discovered in our last session of A History of Women Artists, Mary Cassatt was a great experimenter. Like her close friend and sometimes collaborator, Degas, she explored a variety of media including metallic pigments added into her paint or pastels, the use of old-fashioned paints such as distemper and combined printing techniques. In 1891 she commenced a series of ten works influenced by Japanese woodblock prints which had recently been on show at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Unlike the woodblocks though, she used several different printing techniques, sometimes within one piece (etching, aquatint, drypoint). The bold compositions and colours of Japanese prints (or ukiyo-e), with their unusual, often high viewpoints, radical cropping and expansive flat colour fields, greatly influenced the Parisian avant-garde artists. (Cassatt was born in America but spent most of her artistic career in Paris and exhibited with the Impressionists). The series of ten prints (sometimes called simply ‘The Ten’), depict intimate scenes of women at their ‘toilette’ – washing themselves, their babies, doing their hair etc. In keeping with Impressionism, ordinary scenes of daily life take over from the past ‘official’ Academic preference for ‘grand themes’. The Japanese style similarly makes ordinary daily life a worthy theme for art – what’s more, it elevates it, lending the scenes a grandeur which transcends their inherent ordinariness. In keeping with Buddhist thinking, everything is sacred – even the most mundane act. It wasn’t only the style of Japonism which influenced Cassatt and other avant-gardists (particularly Van Gogh), but the philosophy of the divine in the everyday. ‘The Ten’ were exhibited at Cassatt’s first independent exhibition at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris in 1891.
Mary Cassatt: Woman Bathing 1891 Utagawa Toyokuni I: Woman Bathing 1800