The paintings of Edgar Degas (1834-1917) were influential in the work of his fellow impressionist artist, Mary Cassatt (1844-1926). The exhibition Degas/Cassatt at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington DC, which will be on view from May 11th to October 5th, reveals the way in which Cassatt approached the oeuvre of the French painter, and how she helped pave the way for his warm reception by American audiences.
“Despite the differences in gender and nationality, Degas and Cassatt forged a deep friendship based on mutual respect and admiration, and we are happy to share the results of this relationship with our visitors.” With these words Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, introduces us to the Degas/Cassatt, organized by the Museum with the help of donations from the Paul Mellon, Chester Dale, and Lessing J. Rosenwald Funds and a generous grant from Booz Allen Hamilton Inc.
MARY CASSATT. Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878.
The show features works selected from the National Gallery’s permanent collection, which includes the best selection of artworks by Mary Cassatt, a total of 119 works, and the third largest collection of works by Degas in the world, with a total 158. This show also features works from the Louvre Museum, including prints, sketches and paintings.
The exhibit, centered on the collaboration between both masters, is organized thematically into four galleries, with high emphases on their alliance from late 1870s to mid 1880s. In her day, Mary Cassatt confessed that her first encounter with the art of Degas changed her life while Degas, after seeing her work, considered her a kindred spirit.
Central to the exhibition is Cassatt’s painting, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878). We know of Degas’s participation in this painting through a letter Cassatt wrote to her dealer, Ambroise Vollard, also included in the exhibit. Recent studies and analysis of the work, infrared images and x-rays have shown clear evidence of Degas‘ hand in this precious painting.
EDGAR DEGAS / MARY CASSATT. c. 1879-1884.
Between 1878 and 1879, both artists experimented and mixed alternative techniques, such as the use of tempera or metallic paint, evident in pieces like Cassatt’s Woman with a Fan (1878/1879) and Degas’ Portrait After a Costume Ball (Portrait of Madame Dietz-Monnin) (1879). Also present in the exhibition, other paintings help explain a collaboration between friends: Young Woman in Black (Portrait of Madame J) (1883) by Cassatt and Fan Mount: Ballet Girls (1879), by Degas.
There exists a very interesting series of 13 prints, titled The Visitor (circa 1881), which sheds light on the same theme. Four of them, including a drawing, are included in the exhibition. Finally, the works of both artists after the date of the last Impressionist exhibition in 1886, illustrate a gap in their career paths, although their friendship lasted until Degas’ passing in 1917.
We rarely have the opportunity to see, so closely, the relationships between such great artists and their mutual influence. This show, a meeting of two illustrious minds, is a fresh reminder that friendship and collaboration are more common, in the art world, than we would expect. ■