Whistler and Cassatt: Americans Abroad

James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) and Mary Cassatt (1844–1926) were independent-minded American artists from affluent families who pursued careers in Europe during the mid-nineteenth century, when French realist painters had begun to challenge the academic traditions prevalent in the Paris Salons. Both painters were also exceptional printmakers, creating influential work that defined modern tastes in graphic art in the 1890s.

Whistler arrived in Paris in 1855, determined to become an artist. He soon became associated with Gustave Courbet, Henri Fantin-Latour, Édouard Manet, and Charles Baudelaire—who encouraged the former’s fascination with the ancient, poorer sections of the city. Drawing scenes of ragpickers and peasants in their homes—from life, directly onto copper plates—Whistler produced his first etching series, The French Set, in 1858. The following year he moved to London, where he painted the harmoniously toned portraits that would establish his reputation. His second etching series, The Thames Set (1859), depicts ramshackle shops and working-class neighborhoods nestled along the banks of the river. Whistler continued to produce innovative etchings and lithographs—combining the linear spontaneity of a sketch with a deep admiration for Japanese woodcuts—throughout the 1870s, sparking a printmaking revival among British and American artists that lasted into the following century.

Mary Cassatt moved to Paris in 1866 to study painting, against her father’s wishes. The Franco-Prussian War forced her back to the United States in 1870, but by 1874 she had resettled in Paris. Copying the masters in the Louvre, and exhibiting genre scenes at the annual Salons, Cassatt became absorbed by the modern painters of the day. Frustrated with her rejection by the Salon jury in 1877, she accepted an offer from Edgar Degas to exhibit with the Impressionists the following year. Degas would become a lifelong friend and mentor to Cassatt; he introduced her to the arts of printmaking and working in pastels. Most of the prints by Cassatt displayed here are from a series inspired by a visit she and Degas made to an enormous exhibition of Japanese art. The suite of woodcuts known as The Twelve Hours in the Pleasure Quarter of the Yoshiwara, by Kitagawa Utamaro (1735–1806), inspired Cassatt to create her own set of drypoints, which depict women and children she knew during intimate moments of their daily lives.


Calvin Brown, Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings