Mary Cassatt

“Daring Methods: The Prints of Mary Cassatt” at the New York Public Library (all photographs by the author)

Up in a hallway off the Rose Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library is a small exhibition of prints from one of Impressionism’s iconic artists. Created between 1878 and 1898 by Mary Cassatt, the quiet depictions of women in repose with family pets or viewing the opera might not immediately catch the eye of those who happen to pass by, but they represent not just the early experimentations of Cassatt, but one of New York’s greatest overlooked art collections.

Mary Cassatt

Two prints in “Daring Methods: The Prints of Mary Cassatt”

The reason it goes overlooked is that you usually have to make a special request to see any of the thousands of prints in the library’s Samuel Putnam Avery Print Collection, which includes work by hundreds of artists like Francisco Goya, Edouard Manet, and Camille Pissarro. They were assembled by Samuel Putnam Avery, an art dealer who had started as an engraver in publishing. Avery traveled throughout Europe in the 19th century, importing art for his showroom at 88 Fifth Avenue at 14th Street — the best of what was happening abroad.

Mary Cassatt

Print by Mary Cassatt with a personal letter addressed to Samuel Avery, noting that it’s one of her early attempts at lithography

The Cassatt prints in Daring Methods: The Prints of Mary Cassatt have never been assembled together into one exhibition like this before. Arranged chronologically, her experimentations, both successful and less so, are shown through different printmaking methods, working up from scratching monochromes to those in startling color. Cassatt was close to Degas, who encouraged her to try etching, one of his favorite mediums. He even did some etchings himself of Cassatt from their visits to the Louvre, one of which is on display in Daring Methods. While Cassatt has definitely been heralded for being the only American artist among the French Impressionists — not to mention a successful woman artist in the 19th century — the prints demonstrate her progressive quiet confidence in embracing the ordinary as something refined. They also show her dedication to reworking ideas repeatedly until she perfected her grasp of lithography.

Mary Cassatt

Trade card for the Samuel P. Avery Fine Art Room (1873)

Avery donated the prints to the New York Public Library in 1900, just before his death in 1904, making it the first public print collection in the city. While his influence as an art dealer isn’t readily apparent on the current landscape, his name and eye for art is still visible. As one of the founders and then a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he contributed heavily to its first selection of paintings. He also donated an extensive archive of architecture books to Columbia University, which are held in the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library in Avery Hall. The library is actually named as a memorial for Henry Ogden Avery, Samuel’s son, who was a professor of architecture at Columbia and died suddenly just as his career was starting. In the Smithsonian Archives of American Art are Avery’s correspondences with everyone from Victor Hugo to John La Farge to Samuel Colman, and in the Metropolitan Museum of Art Libraries you can view a whole book of autographs and sketches from his artist friends that represent an extensive web of people that were the spirit and foundation of art in the late 19th century. While it’s a shame that these lovely prints are not in one of the better lit, more central galleries in the New York Public Library’s main building, they do offer a portal into the creative process of Cassatt and reveal the wealth of art held by Avery’s print collection.

Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt, “Under the Lamp” (1883), softground and aquatint, showing her mother reading and her sister sewing

Daring Methods: The Prints of Mary Cassatt is at the New York Public Library Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, Manhattan) through June 23.

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...

4 replies on “Early Prints by Mary Cassatt Offer a Glimpse into One of NYC’s Overlooked Art Collections”

  1. Don’t you guys have anyone writing for the west coast? Or anywhere else? Not that I am saying there is that much in-between (like the midwest, yuck!) but covering NYC almost exclusively narrows things down quite a bit. It’s rude to talk about yourself so much at a party, so why here? I have been on this blog for only 2 weeks and it already feels tedious and unproductive.

    Also, half of NYC’s crappy art world problems could be solved by doing away with it’s tendency to look back on itself to see what’s up. If I wasn’t such a crappy writer I would offer to help out.

    I realize that there are also lots of cool articles on here that have nothing to do with NYC, but the “what’s happening on the art scene” articles are always about NYC. Get some jerk from California to pitch in.

      1. Didn’t see those? You mean the Chicago blogosphere art scene and the Los Angeles Modern Art and Design catalogue critique? Did find the Hong Kong Art Basel one.

        1. No, you’re obviously not reading and only seeing what you want to see. I’ve also noticed your comments, which can be quite insightful at times, have had a recent tendency to attack writers and others over small issues, and (like you California comment) have nothing to do with the topic at hand.

          I suggest you review our commenting policy if you’d like to continue commenting, so consider yourself warned.

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