Behind the Scenes with Co-Curator of Inside Out: The Prints of Mary Cassatt

On view from June 17 through November 1 in the Colby College Museum of Art’s Davis Gallery, Inside Out: The Prints of Mary Cassatt presents an intimate look at a rare selection of Cassatt’s prints, drawn primarily from The Lunder Collection, and explores her creative process and her fearless experimentation.

Co-curated by Justin McCann, Lunder Curator for Whistler Studies at Colby College Museum of Art, and Shalini Le Gall, Chief Curator, Susan Donnell and Harry W. Konkel Curator of European Art and Director of Academic Engagement at the Portland Museum of Art, the exhibition invites viewers to reflect on how we each experience family, caregiving, and identity in our own lives and to explore Cassatt’s extraordinary capacity to evoke mood, feeling, and setting. 

This is the first exhibit presented by McCann since his promotion to Lunder Curator of American Art and Whistler Studies became effective on July 1. Since joining the Colby Museum team in 2014 as the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies Fellow, McCann’s impact has been immeasurable, from the stewardship of the Colby Museum’s historical holdings of American art and key aspects of the Lunder Collection to leading plans for a significant re-installation of the Colby Museum’s collection of American art from the southwest region and organizing important exhibitions focused on John Marin, John James Audubon, Old Master prints, and the sports photography of Walter Iooss. 

McCann shared a behind-the-scenes look into the inspiration and creation of the exhibit and exactly why this exploration of Cassatt’s groundbreaking prints can’t be missed.

Life Trustee Paula Lunder, D.F.A. ’98, GP’24 and Peter Lunder ’56, D.F.A. ’98, GP’24 gifted an extraordinary acquisition of 44 prints by Cassat to the Colby Museum in 2012, including a selection of print proofs that defied the artistic norms of the time. What did this acquisition mean for the Colby Museum? Was it then you knew that you had to bring this exhibit to life?

The Lunder Collection already had incredible depth in American painting and sculpture when these prints by Mary Cassatt were acquired for the Colby Museum. The collection also included around 300 works by James McNeill Whistler, many of which are prints. The acquisition of 44 prints by Cassatt, another 19th-century American artist working in Europe like Whistler, expanded and strengthened the Colby Museum’s print collection, which has since continued to grow and diversify in a number of ways. What made the acquisition so extraordinary is that a number of the Cassatt works were “trial proofs”—a print made so the artist could assess the development of a composition. These works give us incredible insight into how Cassatt worked as a printmaker. I like to think of them as a peak into her creative mind, and they make the collection quite special and unique. 

For example, I was astounded when I first saw The Visitor, which is a print very much in development and process. I remember looking at the work with Shalini Le Gall, the exhibition’s co-curator. We both wanted to know more about what we were looking at. With each print we examined, we seemed to be encountering something original, new, and innovative in printmaking. As art historians we thought we knew Mary Cassatt, but her prints opened up a whole line of inquiry for us and that was when we knew we had to do an exhibition.

The Visitor
, c. 1880. Softground etching, aquatint, etching, drypoint, burnishing, and fabric texture on paper. Second state (of six). 15 1/2 x 12 3/16 in. (39.4 x 31 cm). The Lunder Collection, 2012.297

How long have you been working on this exhibit? What did that collaborative process look like with Shalini Le Gall, Chief Curator, Susan Donnell and Harry W. Konkel Curator of European Art and Director of Academic Engagement at the Portland Museum of Art? Will the exhibit travel to the Portland Museum of Art or other institutions?

Shalini and I first talked about a Cassatt exhibition in 2017. We initially imagined it as a Cassatt and Whistler print show. But over time we realized that Cassatt’s work really deserved an exhibition on its own. Most people who are familiar with Cassatt are familiar with her as a painter and not as a printmaker. We started to focus on the show in greater depth in 2019 and worked through the year on the checklist, the layout, the exhibition’s themes, and, of course, the catalogue. It was a fantastic collaboration. Shalini is an expert on 19th-century French art and so she brought critical insight to Cassatt who lived and worked in Paris for much of her career. As a Whistler scholar, I brought expertise on 19th-century printmaking to bear on the project, so it was a perfect curatorial match. We were all set to open the exhibition in June 2020 but, of course, the Colby Museum and the world was shut down that spring as a result of COVID-19. We shifted to Zoom and phone calls and continued our work on the exhibition and publication, which led to its opening last month. 

Cassatt established new traditions in printmaking, evoking a mood and setting that focused on modern urban women of the era. Today these themes could be understood as reinforcing stereotypical roles of women, but how were they perceived in the artist’s time? When studying these works, how does it offer viewers pause to reflect on the experience of caregiving, family, and identity in our own lives?

Prevailing gender norms of the period limited Cassatt with regard to the subject matter she could depict and the social spaces she could frequent. As an Impressionist printmaker, she focused on the domestic lives of affluent women in Paris. At the time, her work was viewed through the lens of nineteenth-century notions of gender and gender roles. Her choice of subject matter aligned with what was deemed appropriate for a woman artist to depict. Her representations of childcare and domesticity, however, still resonate with us today. She never imbued her prints with sentimentality or narrative, and I think that’s what makes them relevant and appealing today. They have a timeless quality about them that allows for people in 2021 to look at them both through the perspective of history and this current moment. Recovering from a global pandemic, Cassatt’s scenes of caregiving, family, and solitude may connect with viewers’ experiences in ways we could not have anticipated in 2019. 

Tell us about specific pieces in the exhibit that you feel particularly help shape the narrative you’re trying to bring to life for the viewer.

The first piece is a series of three works, In the Opera Box (No. 2) and In the Opera Box (No. 3). Seen together, the three prints address Cassatt’s creative process. The Lunder Collection includes two early versions of In the Opera Box (No. 2), and it’s there we see how Cassatt is developing the scene of a woman, most likely her sister, sitting in an opera box. She abandons this particular work and starts over. With In the Opera Box (No. 3) we see the print in its final, finished state. This is the peak into her creative mind the exhibition offers. 

Lydia Reading is one of my favorites, and I think a print that will resonate with many people. Who hasn’t been absorbed by a great book? In this piece, Lydia, Cassatt’s sister, has her back to the window so that natural light will fall on the pages of the book. She is enveloped by the shadow, lost and absorbed in the story she is reading. Cassatt liked to place her sitters in settings with sharp light contrasts to enhance the feeling of privacy—or, in this case, solitude. In these quiet moments, and often with the help of a good book, we can find ourselves and learn about what we value. 

The Stocking is also one of my favorites. Cassatt is known for her images of women and children. Many of these famous paintings and prints depict nannies and housekeepers taking care of children, offering a glimpse into the domestic world of the upper classes in Paris at the time. In The Stocking, Mathilde Valet, Mary Cassatt’s housekeeper, puts a sock on a fidgeting baby. I think viewers are drawn in by the naturalism of the moment depicted and the precise details Cassatt captures.

In the Opera Box (No. 2), 1879–80. Softground etching on paper. First state (of three). 12 3/16 x 9 3/16 in. (31 x 23.3 cm). The Lunder Collection, 2012.292


In the Opera Box (No. 2), 1879–80. Softground etching and aquatint on paper. Second state (of three). 12 3/16 x 9 5/16 in. (31 x 23.7 cm). The Lunder Collection, 003.2010


In the Opera Box (No. 3), 1879–80. Softground etching, aquatint, and etching on paper. Fourth (final) state. 14 1/16 x 10 5/8 in. (35.7 x 27 cm). The Lunder Collection, 2012.294


The Stocking, 1890. Drypoint on paper. Fifth state (of six). 103/16 x 75/16 in. (25.9 cm x 18.6 cm). The Lunder Collection, 2012.316


Cassatt is an icon of the impressionist movement, known to be highly experimental with her creative process and her exploration of the female identity in a changing world. What did this look like for Cassatt’s printmaking as opposed to painting?

I think there are a lot of similarities between the two actually. Her paintings and prints both address the domestic lives, social rituals, and leisure activities of affluent women in nineteenth-century Paris. In 1879–80 when Cassatt started making prints many of them were either compositionally or thematically in dialogue with her paintings, especially her “opera box” scenes. The main difference might be how someone encounters the work in person. This may just be my opinion or interest in printmaking coming through, but her prints, because of their size and scale, can allow for a more personal encounter with the artwork. Obviously the same can be true of paintings, but I’ve seen many visitors in the gallery stand close to the prints on view to study them personally. It’s sort of like being engrossed in a really good book.

The Colby Museum is a teaching museum and a place for education and engagement with local, national, and global communities—particularly contributing to the curricular and co-curricular programs of students at Colby. How will the exhibit be incorporated into the academic experience on Mayflower Hill?

The exhibition addresses issues of gender, history, and artistic production. My hope is that classes ranging from art history to history, women and gender studies, French, and studio art engage with Cassatt’s prints. I definitely feel like aspiring printmakers here at Colby would be inspired to see Cassatt’s printmaking process firsthand.

You’ve been at the Colby Museum for seven years now, working on incredible projects including Whistler and the World: The Lunder Collection of James McNeill Whistler and Game Time: The Sports Photography of Walter Iooss. Has the Cassat exhibit been a highlight for you? What are your greatest moments and takeaways from creating Inside Out: The Prints of Mary Cassatt?

This exhibition has been a massive highlight for me. I love working with prints and being able to study and learn more about Cassatt has been an absolute pleasure. I have two big takeaways from working on this exhibition. The first is that at the heart of any creative endeavor is the willingness to take risks and experiment. We see this clearly in Cassatt’s prints. She was fearless and ambitious in her printmaking. It’s really inspiring to see an artist go through trials and work through a problem in different ways. You learn by doing and embracing challenges and mistakes. The second is the importance of collaboration. Many people besides Shalini and I were involved in making this exhibition and catalogue possible. I’m grateful for the outstanding essay contributions by Justine De Young of the Fashion Institute of Technology and Daniel Harkett of Colby College. Collaborations can be challenging but the exhibition is ultimately better for the inclusion of many other voices who brought their expertise and perspectives to the project. It’s always a team effort at the Colby Museum, and I’m thankful for my extraordinary colleagues.