07/06/2010 03:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Normandy: Rare Prints Exhibited at Caen

If you read my earlier post, "Normandy: Birthplace of Impressionism Celebrated this Summer" you know that the entire Normandy region of France is paying homage to impressionist art this summer in the "Normandie Impressionniste" festival, which is being celebrated with special exhibitions and programs until September 6. The festival focuses not only on the artists, but on the people and specific places that inspired Impressionism.


While Caen's landscape did not find its way onto artists' canvases, as places like Honfleur, Etretat and Giverny did, Caen has found its own way to honor the Impressionists this summer. Renowned for its extraordinary print collection, the Musee des Beaux Arts de Caen www.mfa.caen is honoring the Impressionists with a unique exhibition, "The Impressionist Print", that includes one hundred and twenty rarely seen impressionist print treasures, on loan from the Bibliotheque Nationale's department of Prints and Photography. The exhibition is the first of its kind in France since 1974. Edouard Manet's etchings, Auguste Renoir's color lithographs, and the innovations in printmaking by Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro and Mary Cassett are among the works highlighting the exhibition.

We most frequently associate Impressionism with painting and light, but the impressionists were intrigued, also, by the process and possibilities offered by printmaking. Inspired by Japanese prints, impressionist painter-printmakers sought--through printing--to capture changes in "states of the landscape," changes that occur throughout the day, seasons, and weather; and to imbue personal scenes and portraits with spontaneity.

Pissarro alone produced one hundred and thirty lithographs from 1863-1902. He called his work "engraved impressions" and added a range of grey tints to his prints, obtained his own press, and by 1894 had discovered color printing. His etching "Place de la Rebublique a Rouen" (1883) and "Paysage sous bois" (1879) an etching and aquatint, neither of which was intended for circulation, are both featured at Caen.

The impressionist painter-printmakers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were precursors of twentieth century artists in the way they applied the latest technology to creating art. For these artists, exploring and experimenting with the technology of printing became an art form of its own and was the genesis of the modern print. Pursuit of the single proof lead to the monotype, a printed image created without engraving. From 1876 to 1892, Degas produced sixty-six prints and many monotypes culminating in his series "Bathing Nudes" (Nus a la toilette) 1891-92.

When I strolled through the Caen exhibition, I was drawn to Mary Cassett's prints, perhaps because she and Berthe Morisot are the only women in the exhibition, because of her brilliant use of color and her rendering of line, or because her print "The Letter" which is featured, is like an old friend to me. In the letter, Cassett's attention to detail, from the tilt of the woman's head to the intricate designs in her blue dress and on the ecru wallpaper in the background are at once delicate and strong--and the details invite me to look more closely.

The Japanese influence is felt clearly in "The Letter"; the woman's dark hair pulled back, her lowered eyes, and the print's flat presentation are evocative of Japanese prints of the era. Even in our e-mail age, I still like to write handwritten letters, and Cassett's exquisite print of a woman sealing an envelope with her mouth, which is hidden behind the envelope as if by a fan, reminds me of the intimacy of letter writing. In her prints and paintings, Cassett shows reverence for women's lives, for the then-limited terrain of a woman's life. In her prints in particular, Cassatt has the distinction of being one of the first artists to successfully master the technique of producing color prints. In 1891, she broke new ground by publishing a series of ten color drypoints and aquatints, creating "a true masterpiece."

"The Impressionist Print" exhibition is presented in ten groupings:

"Edouard Manet" who "opened the way to the impressionist period" although he never exhibited with them
"Le Group d'Auvers" including the works Pissarro, Dr. Gachet and his friend, Armand Guillaumin, and Paul Cezanne who was staying with Pissarro
"Camille Pissarro"
Le Jour et la Nuit" prints from the Degas-conceived, short-lived periodical of the same name
"Edgar Degas"
"L'air du temps" experiments with light and shade on the landscape
"Portraits croises" prints of the artists created by one another, for example Degas' "Mary Cassett au Louvre"
"Cuisines de graveurs" or new ways of cooking up prints
"Effets d'encre" the art of engraving or painting on plates
"La couleur en plus" color printing, in which Cassatt led the way

I cannot end this post without mentioning an exhibition that is outside the walls, but nonetheless a part of the Museum of Fine Arts at Caen. The museum's sculpture garden, inside the ruins of fortress dating back to William the Conqueror, features the fantastical, aluminum sculptures of the contemporary Chinese artist, Huang Yong Ping, in an exhibition entitled "One Man, Nine Animals," representing nine mythical animals from the 2300 year old Chinese book, Shanhai Jing (book of mountains and oceans). This contemporary sculptural interpretation of ancient myths placed within the ruins of a medieval fortress is a sight to behold.

You can reach Caen from Paris by train from Gare St. Lazare, for information contact For information about the Normandy Impressionist festival, go to