Art Through Time: A Global View
Converging Cultures Art: The Fitting
In The Fitting, Impressionist artist and American expatriate Mary Cassatt offers viewers a scene of everyday life in nineteenth-century Paris that speaks not only to gender roles, but also to class divisions.
Crouching on the floor with her back to the viewer, a dark-haired seamstress concentrates on adjusting the hem of her young client’s skirt. With her face and hands hidden, she is virtually anonymous. Conversely, through the clever employment of a mirror, Cassatt presents the client from two views simultaneously.
The artist’s use of predominantly warm brown and ochre tones produces a monochromatic effect in The Fitting. It is not color so much as line and pattern that drive this composition. The central axis created by the positioning of the two figures is reinforced by the client’s downward glance and the vertical stripes on the dresses of both women. Another axis formed by the wall’s baseboard cuts diagonally across the lower third of the image, dividing the scene into quadrants. Cassatt fills the sections with decorative floral designs. Despite some indications of three-dimensional space and volume, the image tends toward the flat and decorative, qualities commonly found in European art influenced by Japanese aesthetics.
For over two hundred years, Japan had held firm to an isolationist policy that restricted trade with the outside world, thus limiting familiarity with Japanese culture in the West. In 1853, U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry led a fleet of ships to Edo Bay demanding that the Japanese open up their doors to diplomatic relations and trade or else risk military intervention. In doing so, he inadvertently inaugurated a period of European and American fascination with Japanese visual arts that would impact everything from architecture and furniture to painting and prints. This aesthetic influence, often referred to as Japonisme, was especially strong among Impressionist artists in France. Of particular interest to the Impressionists were ukiyo-e prints, the subject matter of which echoed their own desire to capture fleeting moments of everyday urban life in their art.
Mary Cassatt was inspired by ukiyo-e prints after seeing an exhibition in 1890 at Paris’s École des Beaux-Arts. Drawn to the thematic centrality of women’s lives in these prints, as well as their unique approach to composition and technical innovativeness, Cassatt immediately adopted elements of ukiyo-ein her own work. Following the Japanese habit of creating prints in groups, Cassatt created her own series of ten prints in 1890–91. The Fitting is one of these.
Expert Perspective; Karen Sherry, Assistant Curator of American Art, Brooklyn Museum
“Mary Cassatt was an American expatriot artist, and she spent much of her professional career working in Paris, where she joined the French Impressionists. She was also an artist who embraced Japanese art.
The most innovative and experimental series of prints she did was a series of ten color etchings she made in 1890 and ’91. And the series was a direct result of her viewing ukiyo-e prints at an exhibition in Paris. Cassatt went and saw this exhibition. She encouraged her friends to come and see it as well. In a letter that she wrote to her friend and fellow painter, Berthe Morisot, Cassatt said, ‘You must not miss this exhibition. You couldn’t dream of anything more beautiful.’ So viewing these Japanese wood block prints that were done in color inspired Cassatt to try to make her own color prints. But she used various etching techniques rather than wood block techniques.
Cassatt herself had a collection of Japanese prints, particularly by the artist Utamaro, who often specialized in scenes of women at leisure and geisha. And in The Fitting, you can see how her own subjects of modern, Western life are represented with a very Japanese look.”
“Japonisme in American Graphic Art, 1880–1920. (April 16–October 12, 2008).” In Exhibitions. Brooklyn Museum Web site. http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions.
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