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The Influence of Japanese Woodcuts on Mary Cassat, Essay Example

Pages: 5

Words: 1469

Essay

Mary Cassatt, born May 22, 1844 in Allegheny City, grew up to become one of the more renowned artists of her era following the Civil War. She is considered to be a significant American painter. Cassatt adopted art as a platform at a very young age. When she was 17 years old, she enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. This was around the beginning of the Civil War. While this was the most respected art school in the U.S., Cassatt decided that the best way to perfect her style was to copy old Master Paintings made in Paris, so she traveled to Paris and hand copied many of the great museum pieces. Cassat permanently moved to Paris in 1872. By 1873 she was exhibiting her work, and making a living selling it in Paris. One of the moments she most recognizes as an influential, and a significant moment for the development of her style, was when she met Degas in Paris. About the incident of meeting Degas authors note she says, “here is someone who feels as I do.”Cassatt and Degas began a relationship that would span the next forty years. They were both from similar high class upbringing and had much in common. They were both devoted to showing the life of their own day, honestly and unsentimentally, using brilliant colors and daring compositions (Wilson & Rubenstien, 4).”  One main conflict Cassat did have was that she was not fond of the word ‘impressionist’. Her and all of her colleagues were referred to as impressionists and it was not a label she took lightly.

Degas encourages Cassat to display her works with independent artists in 1877 around the same time that her mother and father move to Paris to live with her. Between the 1870’s –the 1880’s, she was forced to take care of her dying parents, but still managed to produce artwork that would build her reputation. It wasn’t until her exposure in 1890 to the Japanese Woodcuts at the Beaux-Arts Academy exposition that she would truly adopt the style that would make her world renowned.

As authors note, “In 1853 Matthew Perry, an American naval officer, was sent on a mission to Japan, a country that had been closed to outsiders since the 17th century. With the intimidating threat of a powerful fleet, the Japanese signed a treaty on March 31, 1854 that permitted U.S. ships to buy coal in Japan, and opened Japanese ports to U.S. commerce” (“Third Mind”, 1). This historical event is ultimately what led to the exchange of art between Japanese and Western culture. This is seen as the key moment that ended Japan’s isolation and resulted in much of the art influenced by Japanese culture present in the U.S. today.  Many western artists turned to the philosophies of eastern culture after this treaty was signed in March 31. The style of woodblock print images that depicted everyday life was essentially a Japanese tradition that became adopted by western culture as an alternative style to many European themes. This term became identified as ‘Japonisme’ in the 1870’s.

One of the historic American artists that became most influenced by this transition, from solely European stylized art dominating Western culture to an infusion of Eastern motifs and styles, was Mary Cassatt. Cassat visited Paris in 1890 for a Japanese Woodcut exhibition, as authors note, “After seeing the 1890 exhibition of Japanese woodcuts in Paris, Cassatt decided to create a series of prints. She adapted the ukiyo-e (the floating world) theme of women’s everyday lives to scenes showing a modern French woman, as she went about caring for a child, trying on a dress, and, in this work, sealing an envelope” (“Third Mind”, 1). This was style created by the Japanese painter Hiroshige. The works Cassat produced in response to this Japanese influence would be the works that would make her famous. When Degas saw these paintings, the first batch she produced right after the exhibition, he was quoted as saying, “I am not willing to admit that a woman can draw that well” (“Third Mind”, 1).  Out of all of Cassat’s works, none more exemplifies the influence Japanese culture had on her than her piece The Letter, It’s not just seen in the subject matter, of a Japanese woman in traditional orient style dress performing a daily act. It is also seen in her use of Ukiyo-e as a genre.

Cassat’s The Letter, is one of her paintings where the influence of Japanese woodcut style specifically the influence of Japanese painter Hiroshige can be seen in her work. Comparing The Letter to Hiroshige’s 1850 painting Hara on the Tokaido, one can see likenesses that extend beyond just the similar themes of each piece but in the way both pieces use strong color blocks, and flattened, compressed space to create soothing environment. Both artists utilize the Ukiyo-e genre to tell their story. Ukiyo-e paintings are those depicting landscape, stories from history, or daily life routines, all centered on Japanese culture. Cassat gained her claim to recognition by adopting this style and applying it to French life or infusing European ideals into the concept. In The Letter, she stays true to the classic interpretation of Ukiyo-e, but modernizes it in comparison to Hiroshige’s works. In Hiroshige’s piece Hara on the Tokaido, Japanese women are walking through fields with mountains in the distance. In Cassat’s painting a Japanese woman is preparing a letter, but both have the same implication of peace and tranquility within daily routine. The irony is that the woman in Cassat’s piece is leaning over her desk as though she is exhausted, while the women walking through mountain planes are depicted as lively and conversational, and yet both pieces are intended for the viewer to see the pleasant nature of the moment. Both works use the faint loose coloring mentioned by Wislon and Rubenstien to depict urgency in style, and amplify the works casual and natural nature in the themes they represent and the way they were produced. The intention is that the person experiencing either painting will feel as though they caught the subjects off-guard, as well as the artist in mid-stroke.  The Letter is an ideal example of the genre of art formed in response to the 1854 treaty with Japan that could have never been possible otherwise.

Cassatt’s family oriented works, specifically those where she has painted a mother a child, are an honest depiction of life in its natural state. As Rubenstein notes, “She seems to have preferred to show simple women who had responsibility for the care of their child rather than the upper-class women whose children were cared for by nannies or nursemaids. Though she did not call herself an Impressionist, like them, Cassatt wanted to portray the life of her own time showing people in the modern world” (Wilson & Rubenstein, 23). He goes on to point out that her work is often classified as impressionist because impressionists used broken color and loose brushwork to give the viewer the feeling that the painting was made immediately in a spontaneous rush of passion. This can usually be seen expressed in theme choice as well, as many impressionists paintings show subjects from certain of-set angles to relay a feeling of awkwardness, or natural life.  The difference though between Cassat and traditional impressionists as many art historians point out was her ability to use solid form in demonstrating her unique style.

In sum, near the end of Cassat’s life, she spent the majority of her final years expanding the global purchase of impressionist pieces and exchange between the West and the East that could not have been made possible without the 1854 treaty. In fact without the open trade between Japan and the U.S that was established by the treaty, there would have never been a Mary Cassat, at least not as she is known today. Her tradition of family oriented woodcuts was always traced back to the influence of the Japanese exhibition in 1890. Her style inspired an entirely new expansion and appreciation of impressionists works. In 1926, proceeds of an exhibition of her work in New York were provides as donation to the movement for suffrage. She died at the age of eighty-two. Despite the fact that her work is often compared to that of Impressionists, Cassatt’s known for her specific Japanese style. Which incorporated Japanese influences Her strong influence from the Japanese prints exhibited in Paris in 1890 were the mark of her career.

References:

Getlein, F. “Mary Cassatt: Paintings and prints.” 1980 New York: Abbeville Press.

Mathews, N.M., Ed.”Cassatt and her circle: Selected letters.” 1984. New York: Abbeville Press.

Wilson, R. [Compiler] & Rubenstein, C.S. “ American women artists.” 1989 New York: G.K. Hall & Company.

“The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989” Aestheticism and Japan: The Cult of the Orient. Retrieved fromhttp://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/education/school-educator-programs/teacher-resources/arts-curriculum-online?view=item&catid=729&id=107

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