Author Archives: Amanda Zehnder, Associate Curator, Fine Arts

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.

Manet and Zizi


woman-with-a-catEdouard Manet, Woman with a Cat  (Portrait of Mme. Manet), c. 1880, oil on canvas; Courtesy of Tate Images

Last week I took a road trip to Ohio to see the exhibition Manet: Portraying Life, currently on view at Toledo Museum of Art through January 1. While this enthralling exhibition focuses on Manet’s portraiture and figure paintings, a whimsical detail in a portrait of the artist’s wife Woman with a Cat (Portrait of Mme. Manet) especially caught my eye. Sitting prominently and contentedly on Madam Manet’s lap is the same black cat with white muzzle—Zizi—featured in Carnegie Museum of Art’s Still Life with Brioche (below), also from 1880.

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Edouard Manet, Still Life with Brioche, 1880, oil on canvas; William R. Scott, Jr. Fund; Carnegie Museum of Art

Manet’s repeated depiction of this family pet got me thinking about the wider, general role of cats in his oeuvre. Cats were a surprisingly important feature of Manet’s art for decades. Sometimes they are important to the overall meaning of a scene and always they reveal a lighter side to the artist and his genuine interest in these animals.

In Woman with a Cat, Manet vigorously and loosely paints his wife (née Suzanne Leenhoff) ensconced in pink. Zizi’s black fur stands out in stark contrast to the pale colors of the surrounding scene and becomes a prominent, centrally located feature of the composition. In Still Live with Brioche, however, many viewers don’t notice the cat until it is pointed out to them. In the darkly colored still life, Zizi’s head subtly enters the scene at the right edge. In both paintings, Zizi’s markings and facial features are rendered distinctly. This is clearly a cat that Manet knew well. Zizi’s cozy sleeping posture in Woman with a Cat also reveals an artist who was a keen observer and was well familiar with the body language and habits of cats.

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Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, oil on canvas; Via Musée d’Orsay

Perhaps the most important use of a cat in his painting career is found in his notorious Olympia, where the animal’s body language is also emotionally compelling, but in a different way. The angry black cat at the foot of the woman’s bed undoubtedly is a symbol of sexuality, but its presence—glaring defensively and arching its back—also helps make the viewer uncomfortably aware of their own role as an intruder into the scene. Cats and still life components are often important elements of Manet’s figurative paintings. This is true in Olympia and also in a painting such as The Luncheon (below).

E0702 MANET 8638Edouard Manet, The Luncheon, 1868, oil on canvas, 1911 Tschudi Contribution, Inv. no. 8638; Via Alte Pinakothek

In The Luncheon, a cat is seen curled over, one leg in the air in the act of bathing itself as a curious and light-hearted moment in the midst of an enigmatic trio of stoic figures and still life elements, including a partially peeled lemon. In yet another painting from the 1860s, Young Woman Reclining in Spanish Costume, a cat plays with an orange on the floor at lower right in the composition. The trend of depicting cats and fruit together in one composition is continued in the late still life in Carnegie Museum of Art’s collection.

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Edouard Manet, Young Woman Reclining in Spanish Costume, 1862–63, oil on canvas, Bequest of Stephen Carlton Clark, B.A. 1903, 1961.18.33; Via Yale University Art Gallery

Manet was part of an artistic and literary community enthralled with cats. Occasionally his use of cat motifs were inside jokes or references meant to speak specifically to his writer and artist friends. In this early example of the inclusion of a cat in a major canvas, a dedication to the photographer Nadar appears near the cat; this detail could be part of an elaborate set of personal references between Manet, Nadar, and Charles Baudelaire. Other works in Manet’s career reference his friendship to the poet Stéphane Mallarmé. Manet also produced a famous lithographic poster called Cats’ Rendevous in relation to a publication on the history and behaviors of cats by the writer Jules Champfleury called Les Chats, illustrated by many prominent artists.

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Edouard Manet, The Cats’ Rendezvous, lithograph, 1868; S.P. Avery Collection; Courtesy of NYPL

Portrayed variously as symbolic, suggestive, humorous, and domestic, the deceptively minor motif of the cat had a surprisingly large place in Manet’s repertoire of imagery and became very much associated with Manet’s artistic persona.

So, when visiting Gallery 6 in the Scaife wing of Carnegie Museum of Art and you see the small black and white head peeking into the frame of Manet’s still-life, it’s interesting to remember that Zizi is part of a rich and long tradition in the artist’s career.

Dogs also played a prominent role in Manet’s art… but that’s a post for another time…