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In the Omnibus, Mary Cassatt | Arts & Activities
Oct 2015

In the Omnibus, Mary Cassatt

In the Omnibus, Mary Cassatt

DETAIL: Mary Cassatt (American; 1844–1926). In the Omnibus, 1838. Drypoint and aquatint on laid paper; 15.937″ x 11.75″. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Chester Dale Collection. Public Domain.

Women Artists


The Pittsburgh-born artist Mary Cassatt once said, “There’s only one thing in life for a woman; it’s to be a mother … A woman artist must be … capable of making primary sacrifices.” Viewed through the lens of history, it seems incongruent to view the choice she made to leave a life of wealth and privilege to become an artist in France as a sacrifice. It is tempting to look at her body of work and conclude that it was a given or a choice that most women, even artistically talented ones with means, would have made.

“In an age when women were expected to tend to marriage, motherhood, and domestic matters, few Americans—especially those who occupied the upper-middle class—could have imagined that a young woman of respectable social stature would insist on setting out to study art professionally in Europe, let alone achieve fame and the respect of some of the most progressive artists of the late-19th century. Yet, throughout her life as well as in her art, Mary Cassatt, the daughter of a Pennsylvania banker, showed tenacity and a strong will in place of the so-called ‘retiring, feminine’ virtues extolled in the Victorian.” (Source: edsitement.neh.gov)

“ … throughout her

life as well as in her art,

Mary Cassatt… showed tenacity

and a strong will in place of the

so-called ‘retiring, feminine’

virtues extolled in

the Victorian.”

Cassatt and her sister Lydia moved to Paris in 1874. In 1879, after her work was rejected by the Salon, Edgar Degas (1834–1917) invited her to join the Impressionists. She accepted; a decision that would ultimately place her at the eye of a hurricane that was about to storm through the Parisian art establishment.

Cassatt’s paintings, drawing, and prints, predominantly focusing on genre scenes featuring mothers (and nannies) with children, quickly brought her acclaim and financial reward. (Knowing that her choice to move to Europe was instrumental in her success, Cassatt once said, “Speak to me of France. Women do not have to fight for recognition here if they do serious work.”) Cassatt continued to live and work in France until the end of her life, occasionally returning to the United States. Her influence on generations of American women artists is immeasurable.


In the spring of 1890, Mary Cassatt made multiple visits to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris to see an exhibition of Japanese prints by Ukiyo-e masters: Hokusai, Hiroshige, Utamaro and others. The American artist was bowled over. “You who want to make color prints wouldn’t dream of anything more beautiful … You must see the Japanese—come as soon as you can,” she wrote in a note to friend and French artist, Berthe Morisot.

Shortly thereafter, she began work on a series of color etchings that are a direct influence of the Japanese woodcuts that so impressed her. In the Omnibus, is one from that 10-print series that the artist worked on in 1890 and 1891.

Referring to many of the prints in that series, most notably The Letter, the Guggeheim Museum website states, “She adapted the ukiyo-e (the floating world) theme of women’s everyday lives to scenes showing a modern French woman, as she went about caring for a child, trying on a dress, and, in this work, sealing an envelope.”

In the Omnibus is an excellent example of many of the stylistic hallmarks of Japanese prints that so intrigued many of the Impressionists, including Cassatt’s good friend, Edgar Degas. Flattened space, blocks of color, pattern and emphasis on contour are common aspects found in Japanese woodcuts, but Cassatt moved beyond mere imitation. “While Cassatt emulated the Japanese style—evident in the flattened forms, unmodulated planes of color, and strong decorative outlines—her technique was a highly inventive combination of printing processes that garnered critical admiration in Europe and America.” (Source: www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/japonisme)

In this month’s Art Print, Cassatt shows a typical scene of a mother, nanny and child out for a day in Paris. Cassatt often placed her models in costume, as was most likely the case in this print. The mother, dressed in fancier garments (most pronounced by her elaborate hat) than the more simply attired nanny, clearly place the two women into their respective social strata.

From The November 2015 Issue Of Arts & Activities


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