On drafts, a la Mary Cassatt

Eating lunch at the iconic Schwarzman building branch of the New York library, I have the opportunity to visit their special exhibitions. For the past couple of weeks, they had an exhibit of some of Mary Cassatt’s prints. Here’s a quick summary, courtesy of the free brochure:

“In 1875, after being rejected by the official Paris Salon, where she had been exhibiting her paintings, American artist Mary Cassatt accepted Edgar Degas’s invitation to join the Impressionist group. Cassatt created her earliest surviving prints in 1878, a year before she first showed with the Impressionists. Spanning twenty years of Cassatt’s career as a printmaker, from 1878 to 1898, this exhibition documents her first tentative steps in the medium and culminates with her highly accomplished and technically dazzling color prints.”

Like much of Mary Cassatt’s work, the prints centered on women and day-to-day scenes: mothers and nurses coddling babies, girls at their dressing tables, a woman sealing a letter. What struck me most were the prints that were displayed alongside their drafts. One image would be a sketch; the next would be almost what Cassatt was going for; the third would be the final. Some of the drafts were scratched out in bold scribbles, as if Cassatt were so frustrated that she wanted to blot it all out. Yet to my eye, those drafts were exactly like the final print, except for that they weren’t finished. There were no mistakes or artistic changes that I could see.


It was a good reminder to me as an artist that the consumer of art will never see your art like you see it. On the one hand, the artist can be too demanding of herself, seeing mistakes where there are none. On the other, the consumer may be too uneducated in the medium (like me and prints) to see what the artist’s intentions are, and so the artist must remember to keep the general picture in mind as well as the nitty-gritty technical pieces.

Of course, as a writer, I’ve been through many drafts on pieces of writing, and there is one thing I know: once I’ve revised a draft, I certainly don’t want anyone to ever read the earlier draft. I wonder how Mary Cassatt felt about her drafts and why she kept them rather than throwing them away or burning them. I wonder how she would feel knowing that now they are on exhibit for all the world to see.

4 thoughts on “On drafts, a la Mary Cassatt

  1. Great parallel with two art forms. Drafts verses the sketches and what an interesting point that a writer might not keep the drafts whereas a painter often keeps sketches. Is there no technical merit or “trail” to follow or refer to in a draft of a writer’s work?

  2. My wife is an illustrator. She has portfolio’s of hundreds of different sketches, reference drawings and final pieces stuffed in every available space. I am a writer/poet, I have books of poetry, fiction, non-fiction and six typewriters stuffed in every available space. But no notebooks apart from a couple of ideas on bits of paper here and there.
    The trail a writer follows is often in drafts and redrafts of work, but can be a mostly mental trail in partnership. Fascinating stuff though Katie!

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