Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A few winter hats - Edgar Degas & Mary Cassatt

Edgar Degas & Mary Cassatt met in 1877, through a mutual friend, M. Tourny, but both were aware of each other’s work before then. He had seen her work at the Salon in 1872, 1873, 1874, & 1876 and commented, “There is someone who feels as I do.”

Mary, her parents and sister moved from Pittsburgh to Paris in 1873. Shortly thereafter, she saw Degas’ work in Durand Ruel’s gallery window. She said, "I used to go and flatten my nose against that window and absorb all I could of his Art. It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it.”

Edgar Degas (1834–1917) Mary Cassatt at the Louvre

She led two lives – educated, wealthy, society woman and fiercely determined artist. She even promoted Degas’ work. She persuaded her friend from Philadelphia, Louise Elder, to purchase a Degas pastel print. That friend went on to marry married industrialist, Henry Osborne Have Meyer (1847-1907). The couple acquired the largest Degas collection outside of Degas’ own.

When Degas asked Cassatt to exhibit with the Independents, she gladly accepted. She wrote, “Finally I could work with absolute independence without concern for the eventual jury. Already I recognized those (the Independents) were my true masters. I admired Manet, Courbet and Degas. I detested conventional art. I began to live.”

Edgar Degas (1834–1917) Mary Cassatt at the Louvre 1879-80

She was his pupil but quickly became more than that. Mary Cassatt was the only female artist Degas ever credited with drawing abilities. Because he wanted to paint her, she had to walk a tightrope to maintain the stature of independent artist rather than just another model/artist relationship. She needed to retain the status that her wealth, class, & independent artist roles afforded her. She had to avoid the common connotations of the period of easy sexual availability between artist & model.

Cassatt wrote in a letter in 1918, a few years after Degas had died, “I posed for the woman at the Louvre leaning on an umbrella.” She also wrote that she had posed in 1882, for a number of millinery scenes. She claimed that sat for Degas, “only if necessary, when he finds the movement difficult, and the model seems unable to grasp what he has in mind.”

Edgar Degas (1834-1917) Mary Cassatt with Her Dogs

In 1912, she had art dealer Durand Ruel sell Degas’ oil painting, Mary Cassatt Playing Cards. She wrote, “I do wish to leave it with my family as being of me. It has good points as art, but it is so distressing and depicts me as a repugnant person, that I would not want it to be known that I sat for it.”  She did not like how Degas had portrayed her wasting her time at a game of cards or even worse, as a fortune-teller.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917) Mary Cassatt Playing Cards 1888

They spent time together introducing artists to each other. He enjoyed her company. Forbes Watson, an American critic, heard Degas say, “I would have married her, but I could never have made love to her.”  After Degas’ death, she destroyed all of his correspondence to her, much as lovers often do.

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