On Mother’s day, daughter number two accompanied me to opening day of the Degas/Cassatt exhibit at the West Wing of the National Gallery. Unknown to us, in the gallery right next door, there was a Andrew Wyeth exhibit that opened on May 4th. We were blessed times two. It was a beautiful day in Washington and both exhibits were exhilarating, educational and enlightening.
I did not know that American Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) and Frenchman Edgar Degas (1834-1917) had a shared vision of their respective art worlds and were contemporaries in age and artistic skill. Cassatt stated that her first encounter with Degas’ art “changed my life,” while Degas, upon seeing Cassatt’s art for the first time, reputedly remarked, “there is someone who feels as I do”. They were friends for more than forty years.
In Mary Cassatt’s 1878 painting Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, a fidgeting young child slouches into the pillowy embrace of a turquoise chair. The girl’s scruffy black and brown dog sleeps on the chair next to her. The painting is a quintessential Cassatt.
However, recent cleaning of the work and infrared images taken by the National Gallery of Art, reveal that brushstrokes from someone else’s hand are also present, that of Cassatt’s friend and colleague Edgar Degas. The French artist subtly changed the shape of the room. He had the floor intersect with the back wall at an angle, rather than perpendicularly, creating negative spaces that are strange and unexpected.
In Degas’s egg tempera on canvas painting Rehearsal in the Studio, ca. 1878-1879, the floor of the dance studio intersects with the back wall at an angle. He created a similar angle in Cassatt’s Little Girl in a Blue Armchair.
Upon discovering the details of Degas’s intervention on Cassatt’s canvas, a team of experts at the National Gallery decided to explore further. The Degas/Cassatt exhibition is the result of the exploration. They decided to investigate the previously unknown depth of the pair’s artistic relationship. The exhibition contains a selection of 70 paintings, drawings and works of mixed media by both artists to highlight their artistic dialogue. The drawings and studies are really intriguing.
Women artists found Paris much more open-minded than nineteenth-century America was. Cassatt was born in Pittsburgh but spent much of her life in Paris. Degas first met Cassatt on an 1877 visit to her Montmartre studio. After reviewing her work, he immediately invited her to participate in the Impressionist exhibition he was organizing.
The similarities between the two artists are amazing. Both were realists who drew their inspiration from the human figure and the depiction of life. Both were highly educated, known for their intelligence and wit, and from well to do banking families. They were peers, moving in the same social and intellectual circles. They challenged each other artistically urging the other to experiment with new materials and techniques. They sought each other’s advice and admired and respected each other for the rest of their lives. Degas continued to acquire Cassatt’s work, while she promoted his to collectors back in the United States.
Edgar Degas, Portrait after a Costume Ball (Portrait of Mme Dietz-Monnin) 1879.
Mary Cassatt, The Loge, 1882.
One of my favorite collections in the exhibition is Mary Cassatt at the Louvre. Degas did an etching, two prints, five drawings, a half dozen pastels and two paintings on this one subject. It was one of Degas most intense studies of one motif. Degas often enlisted his friends to model for his paintings, but none more frequently than Cassatt. She is the subject of at least eight of Degas’s works, and scholars believe her likeness appears in many more. In most of his depictions of the American artist, she plays a specific role.
Cassatt on the other hand says she only posed for Degas “once in a while when he finds the movement difficult and the model cannot seem to get his idea”. In the series, Cassatt is displayed as an elegant museum goer who is totally absorbed in the art. A seated companion (perhaps Cassatt’s sister Lydia) looks up from her book at Cassatt. The clothing, stance and posture tell the viewer that this is an wealthy, self assured woman.
Edgar Degas Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, 1880.
Mary Cassatt The Boating Party, 1893-1894.
Mary Cassatt Breakfast in Bed, 1897.
Later in her career, Mary Cassatt became known for her mother and child portraits.
Edgar Degas Portrait of Miss Cassatt, Seated, Holding Cards, c. 1876–1878.
The unfinished painting Mary Cassatt, however, is the only true portrait that he painted of her. She owned the piece and displayed it in her studio. Artists and dealers commonly had cartes de visite taken to document works in their possession. By depicting Cassatt as the subject of a portrait, likely holding objects associated with her craft, Degas establishes her as his peer and as a successful artist in her own right.
I loved the exhibition. It was fascinating. So was Andrew Wyeth, but that will have to wait for another day. The exhibition runs from May 11th to October 5th, 2014.