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'Degas/Cassatt' exhibit at National Gallery reveals their real relationship

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'Degas/Cassatt'

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Washington's National Gallery of Art May 11 opened a gorgeous exhibition "Degas/Cassatt" that reveals for the first time Mary Cassatt's deep influence on Edgar Degas' work and his career.

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Edgar Degas' (1834–1917) influence on Pittsburgh-born Mary Cassatt (1844–1926), is widely known -- but her role in shaping his work, and introducing him to American audiences is only now fully examined in "Degas/Cassatt".

"It was not teacher-student, or mentor-protégé," said exhibit curator Kimberly A. Jones, National Gallery's (NGA) associate curator of French paintings. "It was a true artistic dialogue between peers, colleagues, and equals."

And despite much speculation that the two impressionists were romantically involved, there is no evidence of "anything other than a strictly platonic friendship between two like-minded colleagues," the curator told a crowded press conference.

Hardly surprising, due to Cassatt's fierce independence and Degas' caustic, occasionally misogynist comments, like "Women artists know nothing about style." Cassatt responded by painting, "Girl Arranging Her Hair". The famed work is in the exhibit, and had hung prominently in Degas' home until his death. And when he saw Cassatt's "Women Picking Fruit", he said, "No woman had a right to draw like that." From the taciturn Frenchman, that was high praise indeed.

The exhibit, the first in almost 100 years to reunite the renowned artists, explores their vibrant, complex artistic relationship in depth. It focuses on the impressionist years, the late 1870s through mid-1880s, when the two worked closely together.

The centerpiece is Cassatt's "Little Girl in a Blue Armchair" -- the only painting that both artists worked on. But the exact nature, and the depth of Degas' contribution had not been known until now, thanks to what curator Jones termed "keen detective work" and "groundbreaking technical analysis" of x-radiographs, infrared images, and recent cleaning and restoration. This 1878 work, and the show's other paintings newly cleaned and restored by Ann Hoenigswald, NGA's senior conservator of paintings, absolutely glisten with radiance.

Degas drew a diagonal line on the canvas, and Cassatt rearranged the background from her usual parallel alignment. The result was "greater dynamism," Jones noted. The "smoking gun" revealing their collaboration is Cassatt's letter saying that Degas "advised me on the background, he even worked on the background."

The letter, and the infrared image revealing Degas' diagonal line, are displayed around this stunning work. It was Cassatt's first truly impressionist work, and her debut in the French impressionist exhibit of 1879 -- the only American artist in the Paris exhibition.

That key moment in their collaboration led up to four of their 1878-1879 works -- loaned for the first time ever:

  • Cassatt's "At the Theater", pastel and gouache with metallic paint on paper, lent by the Ann & Gordon Getty Collection.
  • Degas' "Rehearsal in the Studio", egg tempera on canvas, lent by the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont.
  • Cassatt's "Woman Standing Holding a Fan", distemper with metallic paint on canvas, lent by the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas. When the Amon Carter Museum acquired the work for its 50th anniversary in 2011, its curator of paintings and sculpture, Rebecca Lawton, said, "Cassatt’s alliance with Degas, grounded in mutual admiration, produced some of the most closely linked and innovative art of the late 19th century. 'Woman Standing Holding a Fan' is a perfect example of this."
  • Degas' "Portrait after a Costume Ball (Portrait of Mme Dietz-Monnin)", distemper, with metallic paint and pastel, on fine weave canvas, prepared with glue. It's being loaned for the first time in 60 years by The Art Institute of Chicago.

These were daring and unconventional works, Jones pointed out, especially ones using the difficult medium of distemper, which is a fast-drying mix of pigments, water and glue, and also the ones using metallic substances.

Cassatt's use of gold, silver, and bronze inspired Degas to do the same. One of the most unusual and exquisite of all these 70 works is Degas' "Fan mount for Ballet Girls", of silver, gold, and watercolors on silk.

Degas took the lead in introducing her and others to printmaking. And then, "Cassatt takes the lead. She was adept and fearless, although she hadn't studied printmaking," Jones commented. "How daring and audacious these prints were."

One canceled copper plate of Degas' numerous prints (and sketches, drawings, etchings) of Cassatt at the Louvre -- "one of his most intense and sustained meditations on any single motif" -- is yet another fascinating aspect of this unusual exhibit.

Degas' only true portrait of her -- "an extraordinarily exceptional painting, a bold, audacious image" -- is also shown, lent by the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. Depicting Cassatt's strength of character and confidence, it's a "powerful statement of the mutual respect and camaraderie shared by these two strong-willed and uncompromising artists." Later in life, she disliked it and quietly sold it without Degas' knowledge.

Two portraits of theirs show similarities in their styles: Degas' "Mademoiselle Malo", c. 1877, in the National Gallery's Chester Dale Collection, and Cassatt's "Young Woman in Black (Portrait of Madame J)", 1883, from the Maryland State Archives Collection. In a subtle homage to Degas, Cassatt included his "Dancing Girls" fan -- "the most beautiful one (among 27) he painted," Cassatt said.

Different views of the same topics are obviously due to their genders and their era.

"She was always very cognizant and protective of her reputation," Jones told reporters. "As an artist, she was already suspect."

So, as a proper lady, Cassatt couldn't possibly go backstage. But of course Degas is famed for his backstage scenes, especially of ballerinas. Here, he's represented by a rare view of an audience member, "At the Theater: Woman with a Fan", much like Cassatt's approach, but also "Actresses in their Dressing Rooms".

During this same time frame, 1879-1880, Cassatt created her famed works like "Lady in Black in a Loge, Facing Right", and many other loge views, and a series "In the Opera Box".

The nudes the lady painted or drew were ethereal, bordering on sensuous, like "Standing Nude with a Towel", and "Woman Bathing". Degas' approach was far bolder, bordering on voyeuristic, as in "Leaving the Bath".

Viewers will find it difficult to leave the exhibit -- its only venue. Several of the most famous works in the show are not allowed to leave the National Gallery because they are part of its stupendous Chester Dale Collection, whose paintings are never lent.

The National Gallery is certainly the perfect venue. It has of the world's finest collections of Cassatt works, totaling almost 120, and the world's third largest collection of works by Degas, almost 160.

As National Gallery director Earl A. Powell III noted, "This is one of the richest experiences of impressionism we'll probably ever present."

For more info: "Degas/Cassatt", National Gallery of Art, www.nga.gov, on the National Mall, Constitution Avenue between 7th and 4th Streets, N.W., Washington, D.C. Free. May 11 through Oct. 5.

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