Monday Lectures

8 June 2020

Story of an Odd Couple II: Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt (& Edgar Degas), Little Girl in Blue Armchair, 1878

National Gallery of Art, Washington

The American painter Mary Cassatt (1844–1926), who had settled in Paris in 1874, first met Edgar Degas (1834–1917) in 1877 when he invited her to participate with the impressionists at their next exhibition. Cassatt stated that her first encounter with Degas’s art “changed my life,” while Degas, upon seeing Cassatt’s art for the first time, reputedly remarked, “there is someone who feels as I do.” It was this shared sensibility as much as Cassatt’s talent that drew Degas’s attention.

 

The affinity between the two artists is undeniable. Both were realists who drew their inspiration from the human figure and the depiction of modern life. 
Both were highly educated, known for their intelligence and wit, and from well-to-do banking families. They were peers, moving in the same social and intellectual circles.

 

Over the next decade, the two artists – neither of whom ever married - engaged in an intense dialogue, turning to each other for advice and challenging each other to experiment with materials and techniques. Their admiration and support for each other endured long after their art began to head in different directions: Degas continued to acquire Cassatt’s work, while she promoted his to collectors back in the United States. They remained devoted friends for forty years, until Degas’s death in 1917.

 

In our lecture we will focus on the two artist’s exchanges and collaboration, particularly in printmaking, but also on their respective images of family and women, the way that Cassatt’s uniquely American perspective and identity tallies with Degas’ profoundly French sensibility of culture and class.

 

Edgar Degas, Portrait of Mary Cassatt, c. 1880-84

National Portrait Gallery, Washington