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The Influence of Japanese Art Upon Mary Cassatt Research Paper

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Updated: Oct 8th, 2021

Mary Cassatt was one of the most famous American female painters and printmakers. Mary Cassatt was influenced by Japanese motifs and themes which were reflected in her works. Mary Cassatt was on friendly terms with Pissarro and Desboutins, who won by her friendship with Degas the privilege to see his jealously guarded works which only became known to the public after his death1. From her very first attempts, before 1880, she showed her virile qualities and the disdain for facile pleasantness which even in her graceful subjects, protect her from that softness which is so frequent a failing with masters of drypoint. Critics admit that Japanese motifs are evident in her works especially in her entire work, devoted to the representation of woman and the child, which is a kind of revenge for repressed maternity: unmarried, she was destined to depict the gestures of love and protection.

Mary Cassatt shed over intimate scenes a uniform light of happiness without being able to enrich them with that personal experience on which Renoir, Suzanne Valadon, and Carrière drew when they depicted their own children. She was guided, however, by a right instinct2. Where others often fell into ways of insipidness or foolishness, she maintained her dignity. Even when faced with smiles she never lost her sense of reason, and her care for good design always prevailed. “I cannot admit that a woman can draw so well,”3 Degas used to say. In all justice to Mary Cassatt, it should be said that even if she succumbed to the fascination of the xylographers of the Far East to the point of transposing their harmonies into her Series of ten coloured engravings published in 18914. One of which is entitled: “Attempted Imitation of a Japanese Print”. Also, Mary Cassatt appreciated Japanese art and “had a modest collection of decorative objects from many periods and styles, including jewellery, furniture, Japanese prints, and Persian miniatures, but had only a few old masters”5.

The impact of Japanese style is evident in many of her unique styles. Her pale plates, of which the surface is little covered, without any great contrasts of values and without additions, give the impression of having been done at one sitting. She engraved straight onto the plate, and her execution had to be rapid, owing to the mobility of her models6. Her point furrowed the metal lightly, but with mastery. All that is merely accessory — the background and even some of the figures — is drawn in a few bold strokes, while familiar attitudes are rendered with great charm (The Maternal Kiss, The Child’s Bedtime, The Breast and The Toilet) as also are big hands holding tiny feet, and knees making a pedestal or a cradle. Equally striking are her studies of little girls and young women — The Box at the Theatre, Tea-time, The Visit and The Banjo Players7.

There is a curious mixture of reserved passion and sternness in this Anglo-Saxon artist, which gives a particular elegance and originality to her engravings. The eight small drypoints engraved by Berthe Morisot between 1888 and 1890, by the nature of their subjects (The Drawing Lesson, the Girl with the Cat) and the lightness of their technique are akin to the works of Cassatt. The sentiment is however different8. The former pupil of Corot has qualities of spontaneity and tenderness which are lacking in the cruder and more rigid work of her elder colleague; a youthful spirit, animal-like in its directness, smiles through these prints; they have the guileless look of a child.. They recall neither Manet nor Renoir; Berthe Morisot is a forerunner of Bonnard. Bathing scenes, children being dressed, servants drying or doing their hair. Cassatt always excelled in describing form, not piecemeal, but in all its unity. What strikes us most about her compositions, of which the austerity differs so much from that of Degas, is the tone; it is an imperative tone, like that of a mother who feigns severity in order to be better obeyed9.

“Cassatt was attracted by the Impressionists’ lack of hierarchy and the freedom of their shows; when Degas invited her to participate, she wrote: “I accepted with joy. At last, I could work with complete independence without concerning myself with the eventual judgment of a jury… I hated conventional art. I began to live”10.

There is an overwhelming passion under an apparent coldness, a tension which may be compared to a sense of duty; and there is a charm, a charm so different from that pleasantness which is the privilege of the weaker sex, a bitter and sometimes sullen charm which colours everyday life with its angles, its wrinkles, its violence and its monotony. Many of Cassatt’s paintings only drew bodies deformed by age or servitude, children not plump and warm, but overgrown, angular and weedy. She does not try to move us to pity by a facile pathos; she never complains, and it is by the stoicism of her stroke that our emotion is roused11. Following Hutton:

“Cassatt sought colours which would recall those of “admirable old tapestries, brilliant yet soft,” to create an effect as “bright, as gay, as amusing as possible.” The critics found the colours (and their application) thoroughly objectionable: for Fuller, they were too brutal, for Willard, too vivid, for a critic in the Chicago Tribune too “dark and heavy,” for Miller too “garish,” for an anonymous writer in the Illustrated American “a ‘greenery-gallery effort that is not impressive” 12.

Mary Cassatt has achieved undoubted success because of her Japanese images and motifs, it must be admitted that the coloured etching is exposed to dangers unknown in lithography. The process of etching, perilous enough as it is, becomes quite alarming when the preparation of the colouring matter for the different grains diverts the artist’s mind from that which is essential, namely the distribution of bitten lines and the perfect harmony of ink and paper13. The printer’s part becomes predominant. Insipid colouring supplants the impressions pulled with the aid of reground copper plates; tone loses its candour, and the white of the sheet is deprived of its legitimate function. The etching is killed in its attempt to rival the picture. Thus it was that in spite of all the enthusiasm of Raffaelli, who founded the Salon in 1904, and in spite of a number of successes, coloured etching soon declined, and degenerated into productions of a cheap quality14.

Delightful were a number of coloured lithographs executed in this period — and we shall have occasion to return to them again — true connoisseurs will always show a preference for lithographs in black and white. In many paintings, children are represented, pretty, clean, smiling, and looking as though they do not know the meaning of tears. In the majority of her works, Mary Cassatt began by laying down the main contours of the design with acid or drypoint. Then comes the aquatint of the grain of salt variety which was also practised by Degas. After that, a series of labours: polishing, scraping, correcting, cuts and counter-cuts. Shades and contours are sometimes reinforced — particularly by the peculiar use of glass paper — and sometimes softened15. What is really admirable about plates is that the technical skill of the artist is used to produce, not outward effect, but general harmony and emotion. Hutton underlines:

The composition inept and possibly un-American-it was not in accord with “the canons of art as accepted in America,” while the mural as a whole was “pronouncedly Japanese” in its flatness. By contrast, a critic in Art Amateur thought Cassatt’s panel failed to harmonize with the gallery’s other paintings because of its bright colours and “the frankly realistic character of the design16.

In the course of a long, sheltered life devoted to work, Mary Cassatt delved deeper and deeper into the secrets of that technique of painting. In design, Mary Cassatt was for a long time indebted to the masters. When she underlined the odious aspect of a situation or a type of man, she never had the inclination, like Degas, to contaminate fairyland, or to bring hatred and malice into the marvellous. The design was truly an act of adoration17. Everything that concerns the human being filled with joy, and every manifestation of character, however exaggerated, was for Mary Cassatt a source of wonder and excitement. It has never been sufficiently emphasized that it was the inner life that inspired the ecstasies of this fanatic in Mary Cassatt wanderings from street to street, from theatre to theatre, from one house of ill-fame to another.

The majority of her works show a hidden tendency towards portraiture18. The image which she builds up is not limited to a few elementary personalities and set situations. Mary Cassatt always makes use of the particular in her description of the general. She observes every individual with infinite respect, or perhaps, if the word respect may sound paradoxical, with infinite curiosity; she wonders at the conditions in which circumstances have placed her, at the state of life which she leads, at the deformities which age and surroundings have inflicted upon him, but she goes beyond these outward appearances. For observing her models she chooses a position from which she may surprise them in the middle of their daily occupations when they are ignorant of the fact that they are being observed and can reveal at the same time all that is most unstable and most lasting in them. To judge the works of Mary Cassatt, solely from the point of view of the picturesque effect of their colouring and their situations would be to falsify their spirit19.

Mary Cassatt’s women are characters far more complex than viewers imagine at first sight before they have seen the transfiguration wrought by the hand of the great artist who makes them live again in their eyes, lovable in the sense which that word had of old, and who reveals the stuff from which these smiles, these postures of the head, these inclinations and silences are made, which could easily have been the smiles and postures of goddesses, saints, or empresses20. Following Mathews, Japanese motifs are evident in the expression of the seasons, lights or darkness of a sky, arranging according to her whim rain and twilight, and altering the distribution of shadows21. As viewers contemplate these successive labours on the same plate they can see it coming to life under our eyes and striving through countless alterations towards unity and perfection. In his first etchings, viewers can clearly detect the influences of Japanese themes. Hundreds of contrasts and alterations are affected by showers of small pricks.

In sum, Cassatt liked Japanese art and was influenced by motifs and themes typical for Japanese culture. she tried to apply a unique vision of the world and people in her works using impressionist techniques and methods. Mary Cassatt took the public into her confidence by revealing her unique motifs and vision, all is well and good, for they have a right to do so. Japanese motifs shaped her style and her choice of colours reflected in unique personal style. Conscientious, anxious to capture the essence of emotion by going beyond the sensation experienced, he often breaks away from reality in order to express it all the better, bringing in a new character in one place and suppressing one in another, reinforcing. the great success of Mary Cassatt can be explained by the uniqueness of her women images and new techniques applied into practice.

Works Cited

Barter, J. Mary Cassatt. Harry N. Abrams; 1st edition, 1998.

Hutton, J. Picking Fruit: Mary Cassatt’s Modern Woman and the Woman’s Building of 1893. Feminist Studies, 20 (1994): 318-345.

2008. Web.

Mathews, N.M. Mary Cassatt: A Life. Yale University Press; Trade edition, 1998.

Lancaster, C. The Japanese Influence in America. Walton H. Rawls: New York City. 1963.

Sharp, K., Clarke, J. Mary Cassatt: Modern Artist, Modern Woman. USA Today (Society for the Advancement of Education), 127 (September 1998): 36.

Footnotes

  1. Barter, J. Mary Cassatt. (Harry N. Abrams; 1st edition, 1998); 23..
  2. Ibid., 25.
  3. Barter, J. Mary Cassatt. (Harry N. Abrams; 1st edition, 1998): 34.
  4. Ibid., 35.
  5. Mathews, N.M. Mary Cassatt: A Life. (Yale University Press; Trade edition, 1998): 264..
  6. Lancaster, C. The Japanese Influence in America. (Walton H. Rawls: New York City. 1963), 236.
  7. Barter, J. Mary Cassatt. (Harry N. Abrams; 1st edition, 1998): 34.
  8. Barter, J. Mary Cassatt. (Harry N. Abrams; 1st edition, 1998): 134.
  9. Sharp, K., Clarke, J. Mary Cassatt: Modern Artist, Modern Woman. USA Today (Society for the Advancement of Education), 127 (1998): 36.
  10. Hutton, J. Picking Fruit: Mary Cassatt’s Modern Woman and the Woman’s Building of 1893. Feminist Studies, 20 (1994): 337
  11. Lancaster, C. The Japanese Influence in America. (Walton H. Rawls: New York City. 1963), 255.
  12. Hutton, J. Picking Fruit: Mary Cassatt’s Modern Woman and the Woman’s Building of 1893. Feminist Studies, 20 (1994): 335.
  13. ibid., 278
  14. Barter, J. Mary Cassatt. (Harry N. Abrams; 1st edition, 1998), 43.
  15. Ibid,m 47.
  16. Hutton, J. Picking Fruit: Mary Cassatt’s Modern Woman and the Woman’s Building of 1893. Feminist Studies, 20 (1994): 335
  17. Mathews, N.M. Mary Cassatt: A Life. (Yale University Press; Trade edition, 1998), 219.
  18. Ibid., 220.
  19. Ibid., 224.
  20. Mary Cassatt. 2008. Web.
  21. Mathews, N.M. Mary Cassatt: A Life. (Yale University Press; Trade edition, 1998), 223..
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