Cassatt’s biographer, Nancy Mowll Mathews, attributes the artist’s affinity for printmaking to her impatience with academic drawing. That’s a shrewd observation; Cassatt used printmaking to keep the image in play, to evade the demand for finish. In the exhibition, there are several opportunities to see two or three versions of the same image and study how Cassatt revised a composition as she worked through her thoughts about it. And any single image can also disclose the restless exploratory nature of Cassatt’s immersion in her subject matter. The earliest of her prints at the NYPL is a costume study after Paul Gavarni from around 1878. In its first state, there is a rather conventional figure against a nearly blank ground; in the second, the ground has been filled in with dark mottling, and details have dropped out of the figure. In the third, the figure has become a vaporous near-absence amid a nocturnal space. All three versions were still in Degas’s studio at his death.
more from Barry Schwabsky at The Nation here.