In the spring of 1890, shortly after visiting an extensive exhibition of Japanese prints at the Ecole des beaux-arts, Paris, Mary Cassatt wrote a note to Berthe Morisot: "You who want to make color prints wouldn’t dream of anything more beautiful. . . . You must see the Japanese—come as soon as you can." Woodblock images by late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century masters such as Kitagawa Utamaro and Katsushika Hokusai had intrigued artists and collectors since the 1850s, when Japan became open to Western trade. The 1890 exhibition, organized by art dealer Siegfried Bing, included over seven hundred objects and provided an unprecedented view of the tradition of Japanese printmaking known as ukiyo-e (the floating world). Cassatt, like many other artists, made several visits to the display. Her admiration of the linear delicacy, tonal variety, and compositional strength of the works she saw there inspired her to take her own printmaking in a highly innovative direction.
The Bath is one of a series of ten remarkable color prints à la japonaise that Cassatt made between 1890 and 1891. Her technique was her own invention. She chose not to employ the woodblock process, instead refining her expertise in etching, drypoint, and aquatint to attain the desired visual effects of precise lines and subtle color harmonies. Cassatt’s response to Japanese precedent was more than merely technical; as demonstrated by The Bath, she made bold compositional choices—flattening forms and perspective, contrasting decorative patterns and broad planes of color—based on her deep appreciation of traditional Japanese aesthetics. Even the private nature of Cassatt’s subject reflects the intimacy of ukiyo-e images, many of which portray famous courtesans absorbed in personal and solitary activity.
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