Cassatt & Degas: An Unlikely Friendship


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Mary Cassatt, Young Women Picking Fruit, 1891, oil on canvas; Patrons Art Fund, 22.8. This work is currently on view in the Scaife Galleries.

…It may interest you to know what Degas said when he saw the picture you have just bought for your Museum. It was painted in 1891 in the summer, & Degas came to see me after he had seen it at Durand-Ruel’s. He was chary of praise but he spoke of the drawing of the woman’s arm picking the fruit & made a familiar gesture indicating the line & said no woman has a right to draw like that.

This excerpt from a letter written by Mary Cassatt, late in her life in 1922, to Carnegie Museum of Art director Homer Saint-Gaudens upon the museum’s acquisition of her painting Young Women Picking Fruit, includes a tantalizing reference to her old friend Edgar Degas (who had passed away in 1917). She also references an inside joke that had existed between the two artists going back decades. Here she remembers Degas’s observation of the S-curve lines formed by the arms of the figures in her large painting. This particular aspect of composition—the S-curve—became a recurring theme in the art of both artists beginning around the time of the final Impressionist exhibition in 1886, and can be seen again, for example, in Degas’s later pastel Dancers, c. 1897 (Detroit Institute of Arts). Join us on September 19 for the next Lunch & Learn program, where we’ll explore the full context of how and why compositional devices such as the S-curve became an important component of the exchanges between these great artists.

The artistic relationship between Cassatt and Degas is a subject that I had been working on for years before I arrived at Carnegie Museum of Art. It was the subject of my dissertation and has been integrated into many different curatorial projects over the years. Next week’s Lunch & Learn program will focus on the 40-year friendship and working interactions between these two major artists in the collection. We’ll discuss aspects of biography, their professional support for one another, and anecdotes surrounding their social interactions in the Impressionist milieu, including Cassatt’s occasional willingness to pose as a model for Degas. But primarily we’ll juxtapose examples of their art side-by-side to see how their artworks seem to be locked in a visual dialogue. My interest in these two artists together has always focused on how their works seem to be in conversation in terms of art production, subject matter, and composition.

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Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Paintings Gallery, 1879–1880, etching, soft ground, aquatint, and drypoint on wove paper; Bequest of Charles J. Rosenbloom, by exchange, 76.57.1

It is well-understood that these two fiercely opinionated, independent, and sometimes difficult artists were close friends in Impressionist circles. In fact, it was through Degas’s invitation to Cassatt in 1877 that she joined the Impressionist exhibiting group in Paris. Cassatt was an expatriate from the United States (born in Allegheny City—now part of Pittsburgh!) and was the only American and one of only three women to ever exhibit with the French Impressionists. Though they were close friends, one of the difficulties in studying their interaction is that their correspondence between one another has been lost. Some of the most direct traces of their communication that remains manifests in their artwork—where they seem to respond to each other in a range of different ways. Interpreting these visual, aesthetic forms of communication, of course, leaves room for a great deal of ambiguity and subjective understanding. Their relationship was enveloped in the challenges of nineteenth-century gender politics and social conventions. Factors of age, nationality, and gender differences undoubtedly complicate the interpretation of their art and professional interactions.

Delving into the nuances of their artistic production and their occasionally fraught friendship helps produce greater understanding of Impressionist artistic circles—yet, looking at their art side-by-side and comparing the circumstances of their careers complicates our understanding of both of them as artists. Why would the cantankerous Degas, known for his occasionally difficult attitudes towards women, be drawn to the younger feminist/suffragist Cassatt, and vice versa? A mutual understanding as well as the sense that they could challenge each other and stand up to each other’s forceful personalities laid the groundwork for their enduring friendship and undoubtedly helped make each of them stronger artists.