An impression of motherhood

Wichitans have long had a love affair with artist Mary Cassatt's tender portrait called "Mother and Child" at the Wichita Art Museum.

Now, in time for Mother's Day, the works of Cassatt — one of the few Impressionistic painters to focus on mothers and their children — are the focus of a new exhibition at the museum.

Painted in 1890, "Mother and Child" will greet visitors on their way into the exhibition, which is titled "A Kansas Treasure in Context: Mary Cassatt."

The rest of the exhibit features more than 30 prints and pastels, which are on loan from the Adelson Gallery in New York. An additional 50 works by contemporaries of Cassatt will also be shown; they're from the museum's collection.

Stephen Gleissner, the museum's chief curator, said he wanted to bring the show to Wichita as soon as he saw it at the Adelson Gallery last year.

"These works display the best of the best of her prints," he said. "What is really special in this exhibition is that all of these came from the personal collection of the French art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who was a great connoisseur of the day and a huge admirer of Cassatt. These are works that he selected as the finest available impressions."

Born in 1844, Cassatt grew up in a wealthy Pittsburgh banking family. She had some formal training as an artist when she was young, but got the bulk of her skill by visiting museums and copying the works of the old masters, Gleissner said.

She quickly made mothers and children her signature subject matter.

"It was probably due to the fact that she and her extended family were very close," Gleissner said. "Although Cassatt had no children, she had brothers and sisters who had children and her love for the subject probably arose from painting portraits of family members.

"Cassatt took the subject to another level," he said. "She moved the subject away from portraiture to more generalized depictions of mother and child and the psychological relationship between the two."

Even though Cassatt's works have a quality that evoke emotion, delicacy and femininity, Cassatt herself was a dynamic artist who was able to break through the barriers of the male-dominated art world and become an integral part of the Paris arts scene.

"It was through her great friendship with Edgar Degas that Cassatt was able to become a working member of the Impressionist movement," Gleissner said. "Degas had seen her work at the Paris Salon and thought it was very good."

He got his Impressionist colleagues to agree to include some of her works in their next exhibition. With that, Cassatt became one of only two women in the Impressionist group and the only American. The other female artist was Berthe Morisot.

"Even though she (Cassatt) was based in France, her biggest market was in New York, Chicago and London," Gleissner said. "She did so well that she was able to purchase a chateau outside Paris."

People mainly associate Cassatt with oil painting but as she was also an exceptional pastel artist and printmaker, he said.

"Critics had the highest praise for her prints, which did incredibly well in the art market," Gleissner said.

Her love for printmaking began after she and Degas saw an exhibition on Japanese block prints in Paris. That led her to explore the many techniques of printing, which are seen in the exhibition at the Wichita Art Museum.

"Sometimes she would go through as many as 17 different stages in the printmaking process before arriving at the final print," Gleissner said.

The portion of the exhibit that features other prints from the museum's collection shows what was being created at the same time in France by Cassatt's contemporaries. In contrast to Cassatt's prints, her colleagues' prints appear more traditional and classical.

"Although these other prints on view are some of the finest prints ever made they are in extreme contrast to Mary Cassatt's," Gleissner said. "They really highlight the tremendous simplicity of her designs and ideas."

If you go

A Kansas Treasure in Context: Mary Cassatt

What: Paintings and prints by Mary Cassatt

Where: Wichita Art Museum, 1400 W. Museum Blvd.

When: On view through July 31. Museum hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat. and noon-5 p.m. Sun.

How much: Admission $7; free on Saturdays

For more information, call 316-268-4921 or go to www.wichitaartmuseum.org.