Mary Cassatt's NY show highlights impressionist artist's printmaking methods over 20-year span

The New York Public Library's archive is so massive that some of the material has never been seen except on request.

Beginning Friday, the library presents a selection of those hidden gems, a group of works showcasing the extraordinary printmaking skills of American impressionist artist Mary Cassatt.

"Daring Methods: The Prints of Mary Cassatt" includes 88 prints donated to the library in 1900 by Samuel Putnam Avery, a Manhattan art dealer who developed a close working relationship with the artist.

It is the first time that the 30 color prints and 58 monochromes, created between 1878 and 1898, are being shown as a group at the New York Public Library.

Born to a wealthy Pennsylvania family, Cassatt was the lone woman and only American among the French impressionists in the late 1800s. Her paintings are celebrated for her tender depictions of mothers and children in domestic settings. She died in 1926, the last 11 years nearly in darkness as her eyesight failed.

Her prints are less sentimental and more incisive than her paintings, said Anne Higonnet, professor of art history at Barnard College and Columbia University and author on different aspects of impressionism.

Her print imagery still deals with childhood and motherhood but she also tackles subject matter not found in her paintings: woman performing their daily routines and toilettes. She even did some nudes, albeit in a discreet and modest manner, said Madeleine Viljoen, curator of the library's print collection, which contains 200,000 original works of art on paper beginning with the 15th century.

Cassatt's talents as a printmaker are well documented, but what makes this exhibition so compelling is the focus on the artist's printmaking methods, beginning with her first tentative black-and-white attempts in 1878 and ending with her fully realized and dazzling color prints.

The show demonstrates how invested Cassatt was in the printmaking aesthetic, again and again reworking her copper printing plates, experimenting with different methods and making numerous iterations of the same composition with only slight changes to achieve the effect she desired.

"One of the things I wanted to show in this exhibition was not only her great successes but also some of her failures as a printmaker," said Viljoen.

"Some of her early prints are disastrous," she said. "It's kind of wonderful as a result because you can really see her using this medium and not always finding what she wants, dropping it and then trying again."

The Avery collection includes multiple trial proofs of the same print "so we can document how she worked on an individual print," she added.

Cassatt was just as skillful a draftsman as Edgar Degas or Camille Pissarro, said Higonnet. But she was "better with color and more conceptually inquiring about East-West and ideas about authorship. She not only signed each single impression of the print, which declared each one as a work of art, she also signed some of the preliminary states of the prints, so she extended the notion of authorship in a way that's still resonating with us today."

Once Cassatt produced the number of images she desired from a single plate — usually no more than 25 — she would scratch the plate with a dry point needle so no one could pull any more impressions from it, said Viljoen. Occasionally, she'd make one final defaced impression from a canceled plate to show she was done with that image. The exhibition has six examples of impressions pulled from a canceled plate.

Printmaking became an integral part of her artistic repertoire after Degas, a brilliant printmaker, urged Cassatt to experiment with the medium. Her first attempts were executed in his studio.

"It was really through Degas that she became really invested in printmaking and started to make some of her more interesting prints," Viljoen said. "He really was very important for her as she began using this medium."

The exhibition includes an original Degas print of Cassatt with her sister at the Louvre. There are also a number of prints inscribed by Cassatt to Avery and compositions that never passed through her dealer's hands.

In the "Letter," a drypoint and aquatint color print, Cassatt used a desk from her own Paris apartment to create the image of a woman seated at her writing desk sealing an envelope. The subject is Western but the decorative background wallpaper is inspired by patterns in Japanese woodblock prints.

The exhibition runs through June 23.