The subject of Mary Cassatt’s color print Interior of a Tramway Passing a Bridge offers a glimpse of life in modern Paris. An elegant, young mother, with her extravagantly dressed child and a nursemaid, rides in a tramway car, glancing out the window as the train rumbles across a bridge over the Seine. In the original drawing for this print (Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art), Cassatt depicted a man seated to the mother’s left, but she eliminated his figure in the final design, establishing a private realm for her figures in a very public space. While the subject is fully contemporary, Cassatt’s inspiration was traditional: Interior of a Tramway is one of ten color prints à la japonaise that she included in her first solo exhibition, held in April 1891 at Durand-Ruel’s Paris gallery.
Cassatt used familiar techniques of drypoint and aquatint to emulate the subtle aesthetic of Japanese woodblock printing. Beginning with a pencil drawing, she executed her design in drypoint on a copper plate. Working with expert printer Auguste Clot, she prepared two more identical plates, to which she added areas of aquatint to print tone and color. Finally, Cassatt and Clot printed the plates in sequence, using the first to establish the black contour lines and registering the additional plates—inked by hand (à la poupée: with "dolls" made of rags)—to add color. Painstaking and labor-intensive, Cassatt’s technique attained a tonal nuance characteristic of work by the Japanese masters of the ukiyo-e (the floating world) tradition. Camille Pissarro, who also experimented with color printing, called these works "rare and exquisite." He marveled that they were "as beautiful as Japanese work, and it’s done with printer’s ink."
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