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By Kimberly A. Jones, et al.

Prestel, 2014

Edgar Degas's influence on Mary Cassatt is well known--to the extent that she has erroneously been called his student, and her paintings have been misattributed to him. Cassatt's influence on Degas has been less thoroughly documented, until now. This handsome catalogue of the 2014 exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, consisting of an illustrated checklist and five penetrating essays by Jones, Marc Rosen, Susan Pinsky, Amanda T. Zehnder, Ann Hoenigswald, Erica Hirshler, and Elliot Bostwick Davis, assembles clues from their respective oeuvres to illuminate their unlikely and little-understood friendship.

An odd couple in terms of temperament, gender, age, and nationality, Degas and Cassatt nevertheless shared an artistic sensibility and a thirst for experimentation. Cassatt said meeting Degas changed her life. Degas, in turn, remarked on his first encounter with Cassatt's work, without having met her: "There is someone who feels as I do" (xiii). The older artist recognized a kindred spirit and invited Cassatt to exhibit with his band of "independent" painters, better known today as the Impressionists. She was one of three women and the only American to exhibit with the group.

The catalogue focuses on the late 1870s through the mid-1890s, the period of their greatest collaboration and innovation. The authors must rely on visual evidence, since any correspondence between the two artists has been lost. As the collector Louisine Havemeyer said of Cassatt: "It is a great pity that she did not keep his letters, nor write down her impressions of Degas; no one understood him better and she was his compeer in intelligence and art appreciation" (4). Eventually, however, they drifted apart, and that distance (and even animosity) late in their lives has obfuscated their earlier friendship.

Just as it is often said that Fred Astaire gave Ginger Rogers class and she gave him sex appeal, Degas's interest in Cassatt gave her sometimes cloying canvases an edge, while her interest in Degas made him seem like less of a boor; even male critics felt his work bordered on misogyny. Thankfully, the book does not focus on gender, which has been thoroughly explored in previous studies of both artists, but instead examines similarities in their artistic styles and practices, often revealed by detailed technical analysis (which, in Cassatt's case, has not been attempted before).

This approach reveals a shared interested in mixed media and unconventional materials, with Cassatt an equal partner in experimentation. If she does not have a reputation as a risk-taker, perhaps it is because "whereas Degas would work and rework his innovative projects, often ruining them in the process, Cassatt was quicker to recognize when an experiment could not be fully resolved (at least to her satisfaction) and to move on," Hoenigswald and Jones suggest (122). The catalogue includes a few of these failed experiments.

Without surviving correspondence, it is difficult to know if the "conspicuous compositional similarities" in their work--especially their prints--were deliberate or unconscious (8). Time and again, "the two artists demonstrated how similar poses and compositions could be crafted to create divergent meanings," writes Zehnder (17). Many of Cassatt's works can be read as sanitized versions of Degas's, transplanting his compositional arrangements from the public, male sphere to a private, feminine, bourgeois setting. This was by necessity as much as by design; Degas could depict "areas where Cassatt would not go owing to convention, etiquette, or lack of interest" (11). Unlike Degas, Cassatt did not paint fans, perhaps wishing, as Hoenigswald and Jones speculate, "to avoid the negative connotations associated with practicing a craft typically associated with amateurs and women artists" (123). Nevertheless, fans figure prominently in her paintings, functioning as paintings within paintings--and, like Degas's fans, they are rendered in metallic paints produced for commercial decorators, not fine artists.


Although he produced only one true portrait of her, Cassatt served as a frequent model for Degas. She can be spotted trying on hats in his millinery scenes, or leaning on her umbrella in the Louvre galleries. A double outsider--not just female but American--Cassatt was also the consummate insider: an upper middle class woman, with all the privilege and refinement that implies. "He genuinely appreciated her unique character and the innate qualities that set her apart from a hired model," Jones writes (87). It is thought that Cassatt, too, included self-portraits in her own work.

Rosen and Pinsky discuss the artists' shared interest in printmaking, in which Cassatt took the lead. She was inspired to attempt printmaking by the 1890 exhibition of Japanese color woodblocks at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, responding with a series of color prints of the daily activities of Parisian women of her class that "was, essentially, a European reimagining of Japanese print aesthetics" using copperplates rather than woodblocks (106). These, in turn, drove Degas to reconsider printmaking, which he'd given up a decade earlier.

Hirshler and Davis argue that "Cassatt's promotion of Degas"--especially among American collectors--"can ... be seen as a highly successful strategy in promoting herself, her professional career, and her artistic legacy" (137). Cassatt readily acknowledged that Degas not only influenced her work but even painted the background of her Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878; Fig. 1), the book's cover image and likely part of Cassatt's debut exhibition with the Impressionists in 1879. Hoenigswald and Jones (the exhibition's conservator and curator, respectively) have produced thrilling new technical evidence to confirm the well-known anecdote, using infrared imaging to detect Cassatt's original composition and identify intentionally abraded brushstrokes characteristic of Degas's work. His intervention clearly altered the depth and perspective of the painting, but it was a collaboration, not an intrusion.

Cassatt once remarked that "Degas's art is for the very few" (128). The comment was intended to flatter a collector, and she added that only "painters and connoisseurs" would appreciate his work. Nevertheless, such a statement may seem laughable in light of Degas's present-day mass popularity. But though both Cassatt and Degas have been the subjects of extensive scrutiny, together and individually, the authors of Degas/Cassatt have managed to find new things to say about them. *

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an independent scholar and the author of Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette (Yale University Press, 2015).
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Author:Chrisman-Campbell, Kimberly
Publication:Woman's Art Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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