|Mary Cassatt, La Loge, 1878-79|
Mary Cassatt was several years younger than Edgar Degas, but when he saw her work he exclaimed, “Here’s someone who sees as I do.” Currently, the National Gallery is showing Cassatt side by side with Degas, comparing how they two worked together and shared. Both are remarkable portrait artists.
Like Manet and Morisot, their relationship was especially helpful for each of them reach the fullness of artistic vision. They spent about ten years working closing together. As their artistic visions changed, they grew in different directions. They share same daring sense of composition. Both are excellent portrait artists. I just finished reading Impressionist Quartet, by Jeffrey Meyers. It’s the story of Manet, Morisot, Degas and Cassatt: their biographies, their art and their interdependence.
|Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt|
Degas and Manet were good friends, too, and had a friendly competition. They had much in common, having been born in Paris and coming from well-to-do backgrounds. Both had a strong affinity for Realism, but Degas was the greater draftsman, and probably the greatest draftsman of the late 19th century. (Read my blog explaining Degas’s dancers) Cassatt and Morisot also were friends, as the two women who were fixtures of the Impressionist group. They were very close to their families, and their subjects were similar. Their personalities were quite different. Berthe Morisot was refined and full of self doubt, while Mary Cassatt was bold and confident. Cassatt did not have Morisot’s elegance or her beauty.
Her confidence shines in all of Degas’ portraits. She was not too pleased with the portrait at right, but Degas often did get into the character of his subjects. Degas painted her leaning forward and bending over, and holding some cards. He put her in a pose used in at least two other paintings, but I’m not certain what he meant by this position. The orange and brown earth tones, and the oblique, sloping asymmetric composition are very common in Degas’ paintings.
Degas may have been somewhat shy, but caustic, biting and moody. By all accounts, it appears that Cassatt made him a happier person. Degas was the one who invited her to join the Impressionist group in 1877, three years after it had formed.. They worked together to gain skills in printmaking. In addition, to their common artistic goals and objectives, both had fathers who were prominent bankers. Mary Cassatt was an American from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, while Degas had relatives from his mother’s family who lived in New Orleans. Some of his father’s family had moved to Naples, Italy, and had married into the aristocracy there.
No on seems to know if they were lovers. Both artists were very independent, remained single their entire lives. Neither was the type who really wanted to be married. However, each of them had proposed to others when they were very young, and before they knew each other. Writers don’t spend a lot of time speculating about their love lives, still an unknown question. Most art historians believe Degas sublimated his sexual energies fairly well while exploring the young girls and teens who were ballet dancers.
|Degas, Henri De Gas and His Niece Lucie, 1876|
I have always loved this painting of Henri De Gas and his niece Lucie, from the Art Institute of Chicago. It seems a very sympathetic portrait of his uncle and cousin, both of whom have kindly faces. Sometimes it’s been explained that the chair as a vertical line showing the separateness of the relationship. I see it differently. The composition has a large diagonal, and an arc brings are eye from the upper right side to the lower left corner. A continuous compositional line from their heads down to the edge of his hand and the newspaper pulls the older man and young girl together. There heads are nearly at the same angle, single expressing their togetherness. The uncle looks like such a kindly man, and both look at us the viewers.
|Marry Cassatt, Portrait of Alexander Cassatt and His Son Robert Kelso Cassstt|
Mary Cassatt also shows an even stronger family bond in the Portrait of Alexander Cassatt and His Son, Robert Kelso Cassatt, her brother and nephew. Her brother ultimately rose to be President of the Pennsylvania Railroad and may have been somewhat of a robber baron. You would never see his harshness in his sister’s portrayal. He seems like the ultimate warm, affectionate father. The two faces are placed so closely together, and they’re similar. Degas and Cassatt often portrayed individuals in relation to each other to show their great affection for each other, so differently from the way Manet did. In most of his group portraits Manet makes us keenly aware that each individual is a unique soul. He emphasizes differences and oppositions,
One the best of Mary Cassatt’s portraits is the Young Girl in a blue armchair.