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Cassatt and Beyond’ Comes to the Snite

Meghan Thomassen | Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Tucked inside the Snite Museum of Art, “Cassatt and Beyond: Graphic Art from the Permanent Collection” displays etchings and prints from some of the finest French impressionist and modernist painters – Manet, Cezanne, Pissarro and Cassatt.

The term “impressionist” usually brings to mind images of hazy water lilies and pastel landscapes, like the impressionist masterpieces found at the Chicago Art Institute. But Cheryl Snay, curator of European art at the Snite, said the prints are vital to understanding Impressionism and how it gained influence.

“[The movement] began in the late 1860s and was rejected by a lot of critics,” Snay said. “Looking at the prints extends the theme of the dissemination of Impressionism, how Impressionism became more acceptable.”

Academic painters rejected impressionist paintings because there was a lack of finish, Snay said.

“That lack of finish made it more authentic, more about the artist’s response to his or her environment, to the objects, to the subjects,” she said.

Printmaking had a large role in transitioning Impressionism from its avant-garde, radical image to something accepted by the middle classes, Snay said. While academic paintings were works of tortured perfection, Impressionists took their paint into account.

“[In academic paintings] you never saw a brushstroke, everything was smooth and shiny … When you to the impressionists working, it really is about the medium,” Snay said.

One French impressionist, Mary Cassatt, strove to translate the ideas of impressionist painting into her prints and sketches, Snay said.
“It wasn’t easy for a woman to become an artist at that time in Paris,” Snay said. “She never married, never had a family of her own. She painted all day, and in the evenings when dusk fell and she didn’t have any more light in her studio, she would come into her apartment area and start working on copper plates.”

Snay said Cassatt’s work was a good place to start the exhibit because her work exemplified how Impressionists translated the movement’s principles into a printmaking medium.

“[Impressionism is] usually a style obsessed with color and how to use color, but how do you translate those kinds of ideas from a painterly medium to something that is linear?” she said.

One small print – a soft, rural landscape – bears the signature of Pissarro, another member of the original Impressionists.
“It became popular to collect these kinds of prints,” Snay said. “It created an art for the masses, because it was significantly less expensive to buy these prints than the paintings.”

By signing and numbering the prints and sketches, the artists created a market for their own paintings.

“Pissarro actually pulled this print, and he’s writing on this sheet of paper,” Snay said. “This becomes an ambition of a collector to collect all the states, to see it in its various manifestations. The fact that Pissarro is starting to sign in pencil, and not in the plate, but on the paper, gives it an even greater value and even greater authenticity.”

Snay said impressionist sketches are still central to art culture in Paris today.

“You’d see people lined up and the prints will be arranged in windows,” she said. You can still do it today, if you go to Paris and walk along the Seine and there will be vendors and they will have portfolios.”

The sketches and prints show the dimensional variety in Impressionism a viewer might not see in the paintings themselves, Snay said. “It offers an additional way to look at modernism in art. If you think about its not just the actual object itself, but also the processes,” she said. “It’s less of an object to make it perfectly representational.”