The Letter, 1890-91
Drypoint and aquatint on cream laid paper
Bequest of Mrs. Kingsmill Marrs
Although best known as a painter, Cassatt was also one of the pioneering color printmakers of the late nineteenth century. An American living in Paris, she enjoyed an exceptionally close relationship with the French Impressionists. Working in the circle of Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro, she adopted their innovative attitude toward technique in the graphic arts, experimenting with effects of light, atmosphere, and texture. In the months following a landmark exhibition of Japanese color woodcuts in Paris in 1890, Cassatt was inspired to make a series of ten drypoints colored with aquatint. Adapting the ukiyo-e theme of woman's daily routine to one descriptive of the modern-day French woman, she crafted such scenes as a mother caring for her child, a young woman at her toilette, another trying on a dress, and this letter writer sealing an envelope. As seen here in the deft handling of drypoint line and the careful balance of large areas of tone with fine patterning, the artist translated the simplified design and muted palette of Japanese prints into the medium of intaglio (processes that involve cutting into a metal printing surface). Cassatt then collaborated with a master printer to produce an edition of twenty-five impressions of each plate in this set, varying every impression to achieve the novel effects prized by collectors of Japanese art.