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Having things her way

The issue of influence looms large in art. No artist, no matter how original, is entirely free of it. The more rigid the artistic tradition, the more pervasive the influence of the past. In such cultures as the ancient Egyptian and the more recent Aztec, for instance, young artists were not taught to express themselves through their art but to accept without question the styles and ideas of those who taught them.

Even relatively open and dynamic cultures respect tradition - as long as it is modified to meet particular challenges and goals. Excellent examples are Masaccio's enrichment of the early Renaissance tradition and Vermeer's similar enhancement of the early 17th-century Dutch.

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It wasn't until fairly recently, however, that artists felt free to pick and choose influences from beyond their own culture. Whistler and Van Gogh were among the first to be influenced by Oriental decorative arts and Japanese prints , while Picasso fell under the spell of African art, and Rouault under that of medieval stained glass.

Almost every modernist at one time or other has taken something in the way of color, pattern, linear structure, or even subject matter from the art of foreign cultures. And today art students are so familiar with the art of distant lands and times that it is doubtful they are aware of how much such art has influenced their own imagery and style.

Thanks to our museums and libraries, and the ease with which we can travel abroad, it is impossible for us to know what it would be like to experience only the art of our own time and place. We have no way of knowing how final and absolute an officially approved style can be, or how easy it must have been in ancient days to determine the quality of a painting or sculpture merely by comparing it with what hung in the temple or stood before the king's palace.

In those days, artists evolved within very set guidelines. They were expected to conform to a collective formal ideal, not to pursue individuality or originality. The style within which they all worked was a profound expression of their culture's ''soul,'' and so, tampering with it, or setting oneself up in opposition to it, would have struck artist and public alike as evidence of either madness or heresy.

The very concept of originality or individuality in art had little meaning to the Chinese, for instance. For them, copying the paintings of the masters was a perfectly honorable act, and much to be preferred to splashing around on one's own. The artist's goal was to produce the purest possible expression of the ''Chinese'' style, not to invent new forms or methods.

They certainly would not have understood the modern eclectic approach to art. Working exclusively within one style as they did, they would have been perplexed by Van Gogh's use of certain principles of Japanese design in his depiction of local fields and peasants. And even more confused by the fact that such an urban sophisticate as Picasso should use devices picked up from his study of African masks.

But that was the direction in which art started to move a little over a century ago. Artists began to feel increasingly free to dip into the art of all times and places for inspiration or formal guidance. No matter what it was or where it had been produced, if it could give the artist the effect he or she wanted, or if it could add a needed dimension to the work, it could be used without any qualms.

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The only problem was one of assimilation. Whatever foreign element was taken in had to fuse seamlessly with the other components of the artist's style. If it called attention to itself, it obviously would not do.

Assimilation was no problem for the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, many of whom learned a great deal from the Japanese prints then coming into Europe. And it was no problem for Mary Cassatt, whose paintings and prints increasingly reflected the strong patterning and firm outlines of Japanese graphic art.

Always independent-minded, American-born Mary Cassatt spent most of her life in Europe. She joined the Impressionists in France at the invitation of Degas, and showed with them from 1877 through 1886.

Of the Impressionists, she felt the closest to Degas, and he in turn gave her one of his rare friendships and stood guard over her art. His influence upon her art was considerable, but primarily in matters of discipline and standards of draftsmanship.

It wasn't until she visited the large Japanese print exhibition held in Paris in 1890 that she began seriously to apply Japanese principles of design, color, pattern, and line to her own prints, and to work with broad and flat areas of color. The first major work that resulted was a set of ten remarkable color prints that brilliantly combined her own imagery with what she had learned from the Japanese.

The prints in this set are among the very finest graphic works any American has produced to date. They include depictions of women with children that rank with all but two or three of her very finest paintings, as well as studies of individual figures in relaxed poses or involved in simple activities. Seeing them together is a rare treat - as well as a rare event, since print collections include a complete set. They are among the best examples extant of how an artist can take a foreign influence and integrate it successfully with his or her own imagery, style, and techniques. (Although it is true that here and there she does include a detail that depends a bit too precisely on her Japanese models.)

These prints are lyrical and warm, simple, and extremely sophisticated, crisply delineated and decorative. They are also the mature expressions of a remarkable American artist who insisted on having things her way regardless of cost.

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