Degas and Cassatt: Friendship in Art
Edgar Degas is considered one of the founding members of the Impressionist movement, which included such artists as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. However, his closest relationship was with a young female painter named Mary Cassatt. She began as one of his students, but they soon began to learn from each other. This resulted in beautiful works that were collaborations of both their talents.
Impressionism began in France during the late 1800’s. The idea was to emphasize color and light over lines and detail. They wanted to express more movement with free brushstrokes and blurred outlines. They also wanted to depict more realistic subjects, especially people in candid situations. Degas in particular formed a preference for capturing dancers backstage. His work was widely acclaimed and show frequently in galleries in Paris. That’s where Mary Cassatt, a young artist herself first discovered his art.
According to NPR, in 1877 Cassatt became a student of Degas and began to leave behind the more academic art she was trained in to pursue a more liberated form. They both began to experiment with metallic paints and were often seen visiting exhibits together when not in their studios. Degas would often use her as a subject in drawing or sketches. He also bought a great deal of her art, becoming one of the largest collectors of Cassatt pieces. Eventually they would drift apart artistically, but remained friends during their entire lives.
The piece that appears to be the most collaborative between the two is Cassatt’s “Little Girl in a Blue Armchair”. The subject was actually the daughter of a friend of Degas and he brought her to visit Cassatt. Later, she wrote letters describing how he would come to the studio to help her work on the piece. The placement of the furniture and the light coming from the corner window are widely believed to be partly his influence. Infrared examination done by the National Gallery showed an underlying diagonal pattern to the brush stroke coming from the windows direction which is more his style than hers
This discovery was one of the reasons the National Gallery decided to do an exhibition on the two artists together in 2014. With 70 works squeezed into four small galleries, its goal was to highlight the student and teacher dynamic that enhanced both of their careers. Familiar paintings, prints and pastels were curated in such a way that displayed the progression of influence they had on each other. The highlight being of course, “Little Girl in a Blue Armchair.” Within the art they created we can see how an artist’s friendship can create a masterpiece.
For more information, see the exhibit’s website