The Artistic Friendship of Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas

By | April 20, 2017

“Someone Who Feels as I Do”

The American expatriate painter Mary Cassatt and the French artist Edgar Degas formed a long, if tumultuous, artistic relationship and friendship in the late 19th century that lasted for decades. The two admired each other’s work during the early 1870s, years before they met. In 1877, Degas visited Cassatt in her studio—possibly their first official meeting—to personally invite her to exhibit with the Impressionists, bringing her into the fold of the Parisian avant-garde.

Over the course of their careers, they supported and challenged each other artistically, even collaborating occasionally. Neither Degas nor Cassatt ever married, which led to speculation about the nature of their relationship. It is unlikely that they were involved romantically; rather, they were colleagues united by a shared artistic sensibility, or as Degas succinctly put it, “There is someone who feels as I do.”[1]

Despite Degas’ support and encouragement, Cassatt was already an established and accomplished painter in her own right, having exhibited in the official Paris Salon several times since 1868. However, her association with him following the fourth Impressionist exhibition in 1879—her first with the group—helped to elevate her status, when critics reacted favorably to her work and compared it to the already well-known Degas.[2] His influence can be seen in her work of the late 1870s, when she began to develop a looser painting style and lighter colors. Degas was even known to have worked on one of Cassatt’s paintings, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878, National Gallery of Art).[3] Cassatt continued to rely on Degas’ feedback (and sometimes harsh criticism) during the course of her career, saying he was “the only man I know whose judgment would be a help to me.”[4]

Cassatt also occasionally modeled for Degas’ works. She informed her friend Louisine Elder Havemeyer, a New York philanthropist and art collector, that she was the model for Degas’ pastel At the Milliner’s (1882, Metropolitan Museum of Art), and would sometimes stand in when his models found a pose difficult.[5] Degas also depicted her in a series of images showing women at the Louvre, including a number of paintings and drawings, as well as prints like Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery (1879-80, SLAM), illustrating Cassatt from behind, with her sister Lydia, viewing ancient sculptures at the museum.

Though Cassatt’s likeness appeared frequently in Degas’ works at this time, he only made one “official” portrait of her (c. 1880-84, National Portrait Gallery). There remains some debate about the meaning of this painting: Degas may have been alluding to the collaborative nature of their relationship by illustrating Cassatt in a studio setting, leaning forward in conversation, and indicating that he held her in high esteem. However, by the end of her life, Cassatt developed a strong dislike for the painting, saying she looked like “a repugnant person.”[6]

If Degas offered Cassatt artistic support within the avant-garde art community, Cassatt in return provided financial support to Degas, often acting as a sort of agent in the sale of his works. Both artists also collected each other’s works, as seen in Cassatt’s portrait of her sister-in-law Jennie, which illustrates a fan mount painted by Degas that she owned.[7] Through their collecting, collaboration, exchange—and even their verbal sparring and “spicy estrangements”[8]—Cassatt and Degas formed a bond that allowed them to encourage and challenge each other artistically for nearly 40 years until his death in 1917.

Abigail Yoder is a research assistant at the Saint Louis Art Museum, focusing on modern and contemporary art and works on paper. She specializes in late nineteenth-century French art.

[1] Achille Segard, Mary Cassatt: Un Peintre des enfants et des mères (Paris, 1913); quoted in Amanda T. Zehnder, “Forty Years of Artistic Exchange,” in Kimberly A. Jones, Degas/Cassatt (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2014), 2. [2] Barbara Ehrlich White, Impressionists Side by Side: Their Friendships, Rivalries, and Artistic Exchanges (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), 184. [3] Ibid., 188-89. Cassatt proudly acknowledged Degas’ reworking of the background of the painting in a letter to the deal Ambroise Vollard 25 years later. [4] Letter from Cassatt to Mrs. Palmer, Dec. 1, 1892, quoted in ibid., 186. [5] Jean Sutherland Boggs, ed, Degas (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1988), 396. Her likeness also appears in At the Milliner’s, c. 1882, Museum of Modern Art. [6] See Esther Bell, in Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2017), 221 and Kimberly A. Jones, “‘A Much Finer Curve’: Identity and Representation in Degas’ Depictions of Cassatt,” in Degas/Cassatt, 96-97. Jones compares Cassatt’s pose to an earlier painting by Degas, The Collector of Prints (1866, Metropolitan Museum of Art), which shows a man, seated in a similar position, holding small prints. She suggests Degas may have updated the scene and placed Cassatt in a photography studio. [7] The actual fan mount  is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (acc. no. 29.100.555). [8] Louisine Havemeyer, “Mary Cassatt,” Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Museum 22, no. 113 (May 1927), 377.
Image credits: Edgar Degas, French, 1834–1917; Mary Cassatt, c.1880-1884 oil on canvas; stretcher: 28 7/8 × 23 5/8 × 1 1/2 in. (73.3 × 60 × 3.8 cm),framed: 37 1/4 × 31 5/8 × 3 1/2 in. (94.6 × 80.3 × 8.9 cm); National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation and the Regents’ Major Acquisitions Fund, Smithsonian Institution || Cassatt, Mary, American, 1844 – 1926; Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878; oil on canvas, 35 1/4 x 51 1/8 inches; National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon 1983.1.18 || Edgar Degas (French, Paris 1834–1917 Paris); At the Milliner’s, 1882; pastel on pale gray wove paper (industrial wrapping paper), laid down on silk bolting, 30 x 34 inches, drawing; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 29.100.38 || Edgar Degas, French, 1834–1917; Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery, 1879–80; soft-ground etching, drypoint, aquatint, and etching, image: 10 5/8 x 9 5/16 inches, sheet (irregular): 14 1/16 x 10 9/16 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. G. Gordon Hertslet 62:1971 || Mary Cassatt, American, 1844-1926; Portrait of Madame J (Young Woman in Black), 1883; oil on canvas; 31 ½ x 25 inches; Collection of the Maryland State Archives: The Peabody Art Collection

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