Mary Cassatt
Woman in Front of
the Mirror, 1981

Cassatt's inspiration for her graphic work is traced back to an exhibition at the Beaux Arts in Paris in April of 1890 --which featured 725 Ukiyo-e Japanese woodcut prints, albums, and illustrated books by Japanese artists including Utamaro and  Hiroshige.

The discovery of Japanese art prints by French artists and collectors alike began in the 1860s.  Cassatt new of Japanese prints long before this major exhibition--she collected prints, porcelains, and fans from Japan, and was especially attracted to the work of Utamaro.  The exhibition, however, revealed in sheer quantity and quality the impact of the Japanese artists in terms of new techniques, different color, and simplified composition. 

This print of Cassatt's is one of the few, if not the only work of hers, which shows an adult woman bare-breasted.  Japanese prints often focused on overtly sexual themes--the woman in Cassatt's work is not overtly sexual--perhaps this nudity was as far as Cassatt could go in this domain. Cassatt has simplified her composition, added the pattern of print, not only on the sofa, but on the wallpaper. 

Mary Cassatt
The Letter,1891

The Letter, focuses on a private moment for a maid.  Cassatt's work focuses primarily on women of upper or middle class--with some exceptions--yet it is interesting that she has chosen this subject matter for her experimentation with Japanese-style prints.  Perhaps a novel subject matter was called for with a novel technique.