/When Mary Met Edgar: Exploring Cassatt and Degas

When Mary Met Edgar: Exploring Cassatt and Degas

There are love stories about kindred spirits. There are others about far-off admirers.

This is a story of both.

In 2014, Christopher Ward visited an art exhibit that explored the relationship between the French Impressionist Edgar Degas and the American artist Mary Cassatt. The two were inseparable in the late 1870s. They kept studios blocks from each other in Paris and met frequently when in town.

Mr. Ward, a playwright, was captivated by the pair. “I looked at my wife and said, ‘This is a play,’” he recently recalled.

Mr. Ward’s “The Independents,” which began performances on Thursday at the Jerry Orbach Theater in Manhattan, explores the artists’ relationship in the late 1870s. “I’ve always loved Mary Cassatt,” Mr. Ward said. Like writers before him, Mr. Ward was curious about the dynamic between the Cassatt and Degas. Cassatt, a single woman who moved to Paris in 1866 to pursue painting, left few accounts behind. Degas didn’t write much either. Historians agree, though, that it was one of the most significant artistic relationships of that era.

“He challenged her and loved her enthusiasm,” said Kimberly A. Jones, curator of 19th-century French painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which hosted the exhibition Mr. Ward saw in 2014. “She was fearless. The two of them would riff off each other. What Cassatt saw in Degas was that he was always trying something new.”

So how did the daughter of an American stockbroker come to meet a surly, bourgeois French artist? Degas became aware of Cassatt, known for her sensitive portrayals of women and children, in 1874, historians said. He was strolling through the Salon exhibition in Paris that spring, a highlight of the social art season, when he came across a painting of a woman in a blue gown.

According to the art historian Nancy Mowll Mathews, Degas looked at the painting and remarked, “This is someone who feels the way I do.” The painting was by Cassatt. “It is an anecdote she told often,” Dr. Mathews, who has written about the artist, said.

It wasn’t until 1877 that the two met. Cassatt knew Degas’s work and admired his pastels. By then, Degas and a group of artists, including Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Camille Pissarro, had formed the Impressionists. Cassatt and Degas were introduced by Joseph-Gabriel Tourny, an artist who met Cassatt when she visited Antwerp in 1873, Dr. Mathews said. Despite growing up on different continents, the two had much in common.

Neither was married. Degas’s mother was from the United States, and his two brothers married Americans and lived in New Orleans.

“Degas was surrounded by Americans,” Dr. Mathews said. “He was someone who liked having people like him. He got them interested in his ideas. Cassatt was one of many who came into the Impressionist circle through Degas.” They even talked about touring the United States together, she said.

In 1877 Cassatt joined the Impressionists — a welcome invitation, as female artists weren’t allowed to mingle with men in cafes. (Single women, too, were accompanied by chaperones.)

Degas would go on to influence her work. The girl in Cassatt’s “Little Girl in a Blue Armchair,” for example, was the daughter of a friend of Degas, Dr. Jones said. He also advised her on the painting’s background and, brush in hand, painted a few strokes.

How much Cassatt appreciated his help is a matter of debate. “She thought he was the greatest artist of his day,” Dr. Mathews said. “She was flattered that he was so interested in her work.”

Mr. Ward, though, had a different take, which he explores in the play.

He spent nearly a year reading texts and perusing letters and came away with the idea that Cassatt, who was accomplished in her own right, would have been annoyed by Degas’s fiddling. “He was a terror,” the playwright said. “I got this subtext, ‘Can you believe he has painted on my painting?’”

Whatever might have transpired, Cassatt exhibited the painting, along with 10 others, in her debut with the Impressionists in 1879. And it foreshadowed a relationship that was both supportive and fraught. “There are lots of examples of him saying things to her that were offensive,” Dr. Mathews said. “He would say, ‘I can’t believe a woman can draw this well.’”

ImageDegas portrayed Cassatt in several pieces, including this etching from 1879 or 1880, in which she is shown regarding an artwork at the Louvre.
CreditNational Gallery of Art

Degas also chided Cassatt for being a stereotypical American in Paris, she said. In one etching, Degas depicted Cassatt at the Louvre looking at an artwork as her sister reads a book. “That etching fell right into the old joke about tourists in the museum looking at their guidebooks,” Dr. Mathews said.

Still, he prized his relationship with her. Cassatt appeared in several of Degas’s works depicting well-heeled Parisian women. “She permeates a lot of his work in the late 1870s,” Dr. Jones said. “I think one of the reasons he liked her was because she was an elegant young woman. He was capturing her in her real habitat.”

After the 1879 Impressionist show, Degas wanted to create a journal of prints that explored light and shadow. He recruited his fellow Impressionists, including Cassatt, with whom he worked most closely, to work on the project, titled “Le Jour et la Nuit.” They spent hours at each other’s studios. They explored new painting techniques, including using metallic paint.

“They were inseparable,” Mr. Ward said. “In Mary, he met his match.”

But in 1880, the project was abandoned. That angered Cassatt’s American family who, by then, had moved to Paris. “Mary Cassatt’s mother would throw all kinds of shade at Degas,” Dr. Jones said. “She thought Mary should be painting, not wasting time on Degas’s journal.” But Cassatt would continue her work, becoming a master printmaker in later years. “So it opened doors she might not have gone through,” Dr. Jones said.

The relationship between the two artists drifted after the journal fell apart. Still, Cassatt remained aware of his personal affairs. At the end of his life, she encouraged Degas’s niece to take care of him, Dr. Jones said. He died in 1917. Cassatt died nine years later.

Their close relationship, particularly from 1877 to 1880, has left some people to wonder: Were the two ever lovers? Robin Oliveira, a historical fiction writer, explored the idea in her 2014 novel, “I Always Loved You: A Story of Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas.” “I see it as a possibility in a complex mentoring relationship which evolved,” she said.

But most historians disagree. “She needed professional distance to be taken seriously,” Dr. Jones said. “Or she would always be seen as Degas’s lover.”

Cassatt was conscious of her reputation, even going so far as to regularly destroy letters and artwork that might diminish her standing as an artist. “If you die suddenly, you don’t get to control your destiny,” Dr. Jones said.

Mr. Ward, for his part, said they were kindred spirits lucky enough to find each other in Paris. “When you see their paintings side by side, she was his equal,” he said. “And that is what I am trying to show in this play.”

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