Claude Monet maintained (I’m paraphrasing) that caricature was the soul of art. Not a surprising statement coming from a master caricaturist. I agree with Monet wholeheartedly.
The exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art—Mary Cassatt and the Feminine Ideal in 19th-Century Paris—provides a great opportunity to examine some drawing and prints by Cassatt and her contemporaries (unfortunately Monet is not among them).
Putting aside the pasted-on theme, this small show is chockablock with masterful drawings and prints. Several works by Degas and Lautrec are especially choice. Cassatt holds her own among this fast company, which is saying a lot. She shines most brightly in several dry points, including this one.
One point highlighted by this exhibit, is the tremendous effect Japanese art/prints had on mid-century European art. An Utamaro woodcut next to several Cassatt soft-ground etchings (no, not woodcuts) demonstrates just how much influence Japanese art had on her. These Japanese-influenced works are one of the low points of the show, and speak to one of the criticisms leveled at her over the years, namely that she was too influenced by her teachers/companions. (I wonder if the curator was trying to make this point.)
The woodenness (no pun intended) of the Japanese-influenced etchings might be due in part to the labor-intensive technique of color etching. Her other drawings and prints on view are strong and not the least wooden.
Another low point can be summed up by saying: Pissarro had a stiff hand.
What do you think Monet meant about caricature? Just as a writer might sketch a character in a few sentences, the artist can do the same with a few lines. When done for comic effect it produces caricatures. Otherwise, this ‘characterizing’ produces landscapes, figures, portraits—sketches of any type imaginable. (What is the ‘character’ of a landscape?) Artists have long known that this characterizing is best when done quickly. Even academic artists like Thomas Couture (Manet’s teacher) highly valued the quick sketch—the ebauche. Of course, we know the importance of the quick study to Monet and the Impressionists.
Finally, I can’t let the exhibition go without showing a delightful etching by Degas.