‘Degas/Cassatt’ at the National Gallery Explores Inspiration

In 1879, Edgar Degas made a charcoal and pastel image of two female figures, one standing with a book in her hands, the other seen from behind, leaning slightly on the staff of her closed umbrella. These are probably two visions of the artist Mary Cassatt, a friend, colleague and co-conspirator with Degas in Parisian impressionist circles.

The drawing is one of some 70 works by Degas and Cassatt in the National Gallery of Art’s “Degas/Cassatt” show, which opened Sunday. It is also one of the most concentrated and evocative in an exhibition that aims to explore the relationship between the two artists and remedy many of the popular misconceptions about their alliance. It was not, according to Kimberly Jones, associate curator for French paintings, a romantic relationship or a pedagogical one, but a relationship of equals to the extent possible between a younger American woman and an older, established and often acerbic Frenchman.

“I think they had a wonderful platonic relationship, a tremendous professional relationship, and they admired one another tremendously,” Jones said in an interview earlier this year. The problem for anyone teasing out that relationship, however, is the lack of written evidence. Degas didn’t keep Cassatt’s letters, and Cassatt apparently destroyed his. The testimony of mutual acquaintances offers some data, and the pictures themselves, when explored with consideration to chronology, are another avenue for speculation.

The 1879 pastel reveals the promise and the pitfalls of this approach. If this is indeed an image of Cassatt, we see two very different interpretations of her. The pastel is listed in the exhibition catalog as Two Studies of Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, and it is one of several related drawings, prints and paintings that show Cassatt, or a woman who resembles her, at the Louvre, or similar museum or gallery.

Degas’s obsession in these images seems to have something to do with the difference between an authentic and a mediated relationship to art.

The Cassatt figure who faces the viewer holds her book high, as if she is glancing back and forth between an image on the page and a painting on the wall. The posture suggests a studious amateur, dutifully mastering her art history. The other Cassatt, who stands with her back to the viewer, leaning slightly on her umbrella, is by contrast a woman utterly at home in the art gallery, confronting the past as an equal, engaging art as a participant. She is jaunty, aware of her beauty and completely unintimidated by her surroundings. Degas made several iterations of this image, and in some of them the contrast is even more heightened: The reading woman is sitting, looking perhaps enviously at the standing figure, who is leaning even more provocatively on her umbrella. We can’t see her face, but her self-assurance has taken on cinematic proportions, as if the next shot in this scene will frame her like Garbo, and she’ll deliver a one-liner that establishes her femme fatale bona fides.

The pictures complicate our understanding of the generic misogyny of 19th-century Frenchmen such as Degas, as well as his own particular and prickly misogyny, manifested in his famous assertion that female artists couldn’t understand style. Degas is best remembered for his ballet dancers, his actresses and prostitutes, women spied upon, seen in various states of undress, bathing, primping and readying themselves for consumption by the male gaze. But with Cassatt, who served him as a model on multiple occasions, he discovers a woman who both physically embodies style and has mastered it on the artistic level. She engages with the same art that engaged him with perfect ease, and in a basic, literal way, she leaves him behind: She turns her back on the artist to concentrate entirely on the art that surrounds her.

These images also demonstrate the challenge the curators face when trying to place Degas and Cassatt on equal terms. Cassatt isn’t just a fellow artist and colleague of Degas, she was also a subject for his art, in a way that Degas wasn’t for Cassatt. And while they inhabited the same social milieu and maintained a complex friendship, they were not equally privy to the full spectrum of French society. Both Degas and Cassatt could paint women of society and the fashionable bourgeois, but Degas could also paint women backstage at the opera, in theater dressing rooms, in the grimy boudoirs of a brothel, spaces Cassatt could never visit.

“Cassatt really did have a strong sense of propriety, and she was very conscious of her reputation,” Jones said. “Already being an artist, she was breaking a lot of rules, but she did not want to be seen as someone who was not serious and not respectful.” The exhibit attempts to demonstrate these restrictions by contrasting the two artists’ subtly different relationships to public space.

“You can see she does wonderful theater scenes, but always from the loge,” Jones said. “She’s never down backstage like Degas could be, and that is certainly one of the reasons why so much of her work is focused on interior, domestic scenes, because that was a world in which she did not have to worry about access.”

And so curious quirks emerge. Both Cassatt and Degas paint people at the opera, but Cassatt never shows us the stage. Cassatt’s women, often beautiful but with vacant faces, are looking and being looked at at the same time; by omitting the theatrical stage, where the ballerinas are dancing and sopranos singing, Cassatt reminds us that “proper” women are as scrutinized in public as actresses are before the footlights.

Degas, by contrast, often conflates the stage with the viewer. In one 1878-80 image, At the Theatre: Woman With a Fan, a woman in the audience is linked to the performers by striking similarities in the rendering of their hair; the fan in the title makes for an ironically flimsy barrier between stage and spectator.

Any exhibition that presents Cassatt and Degas together inevitably becomes an exhibition about Cassatt, because she is a problematic artist, strange, unpredictable, sometimes not quite in control of her idiosyncrasies. Jones said that this exhibition will help push audiences past their usual sense of Cassatt as a painter of women and babies, fleshy toddlers and buxom maternal figures.

“I think Cassatt is going to be the big surprise for most people,” Jones said. “We’re accustomed to knowing that Degas was avant-garde and edgy, but people don’t think of Cassatt that way. People think of her as the painter of mothers and children, and they’re very beautiful, but in fact, except for works in the very last section . . . there are no mothers and children. It’s other subjects.”