Degas and Cassatt: An Artistic Alliance


The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. presents Degas/Cassatt from May 11 until October 5, 2014. The exclusive exhibit explores Edgar Degas’ influence on American Impressionist, Mary Cassatt and her role in shaping his work.

At the heart of the exhibit is Mary Cassatt’s Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1888). From a single letter (also on display) written by Cassatt to her French art dealer and avant-garde patron, Ambrose Vollard, it became evident that Degas had a part in this particular work.

After restoration, infrared images and x-radiographs done by the National Gallery of Art (NGA), it was discovered that there are brushstrokes from another hand present in the painting of the work. For the museum curators, the painting is “a bit of a smoking gun” says Kimberly Jones, associate curator of French paintings. They believe that Degas picked up brush and palette, and “sketched” in the corner of the canvas. This finding was clear evidence that Degas added a detail in Cassatt’s canvas, on which she elaborated further.

With this conclusion, the NGA decided to examine the Degas-Cassett artistic relationship further. As the only venue for this mid-size exhibit, the museum chose to underline their artistic alliance with 70 works – pastels, oil paintings, monotypes, etchings, lithographs and drawings – concentrating on the peak of their alliance from the late 1870s to the mid-1880s.


In the early 1870s, the young Philadelphian, Mary Cassatt traveled to Paris. It was a time when women were inclined to domestics and marriage. However, Cassatt was determined. She did not intend to go back to America, so she studied, painted and studied more.

By 1872, the Salon accepted one of her paintings, and two years later, the French painter, Edgar Degas spotted her painting, Ida. He felt an immediate connection to her work, but did not seek her out. He reputedly said, “there is someone who feels as I do.” Meanwhile, Cassatt had seen pastels by Edgar Degas in a window, and supposedly declared that it “changed her life.”

Over the next several years, Cassatt’s work continued to become more and more impressionistic, and by 1877, the Salon rejected her paintings. Degas went to visit the artist in her Montmartre studio. He invited her to participate in an exhibition of independent painters, and Cassatt was introduced to the assembly of artists known as the Impressionists. From that moment forth, Cassatt was allied with the French Impressionist, Edgar Degas as they eased into a mutual awareness.

Regardless of their “differences of gender and nationality,” Earl A. Powell II, director of the National Gallery of Art, said the two artists “forged a deep friendship founded on respect and admiration.” Cassatt was one of the few who had the rare privilege of Edgar Degas’ friendship.

When surveying the two artists, the like-mindedness between them is undeniable. They were both realists who deeply admired each other’s art. The artists both gained inspiration from the human figure and the portrayal of contemporary life, while avoiding landscape almost exclusively. As colleagues, they moved in the same social, artistic and intellectual circles. Both highly educated and from wealthy families, they were known for their wit.

For the next four decades, the two artists held intense dialogue, turned to one another for guidance and challenged each other to test alternate techniques and unconventional mixed media materials such as tempera, dry pastels, gouache and metallic paint. They both discovered printmaking and etching, which became a significant aspect of their artistic careers. And, for a while, they worked together on their efforts, as seen in the Little Girl in the Blue Armchair and their collaboration of etchings for Le Jour et La Nuit, to name a few.

Artistic comparisons are interspersed in the D.C. exhibit. They include works such as Degas’s Fan Mount: Ballet Girls, alongside Cassatt’s Young Woman in Black, wherein she presented Degas’ painting into the background. Moreover, while Cassatt was a master of domesticity with deft pastels of mothers, babies and small children, her work prior to 1886, included nudes that are also on display.

Though their art began to veer off in different directions, they maintained their support and admiration for one another. Edgar Degas acquired Cassatt’s work, while she promoted his to collectors in the U.S. Late in Degas’ life, Cassatt arranged for their work to hang together in New York for a women’s suffrage benefit. The artists remained dedicated to one another for 40 years, until Degas’s death in 1917.

By Dawn Levesque

19th and 20th Century Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture
National Gallery of Art
The Independent
The Washington Post

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