Monday, September 15, 2014

Degas/Cassatt at the National Gallery of Art

Mary Cassatt Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878 oil on canvas overall: 89.5 x 129.8 cm (35 1/4 x 51 1/8 in.) framed: 114.3 x 154.3 x 5.7 cm (45 x 60 3/4 x 2 1/4 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon
Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878
oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

Edgar Degas's (1834–1917) influence on fellow impressionist Mary Cassatt (1844–1926) is widely known, but her role in shaping his work and introducing him to American audiences is fully examined for the first time in Degas/Cassatt. On view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington—the sole venue worldwide—from May 11 through October 5, 2014, the exhibition includes some 70 works in a variety of media. Groundbreaking technical analysis is presented by conservators and scientists who examined key works by both artists.

"Despite differences of gender and nationality, Degas and Cassatt forged a deep friendship founded on respect and admiration, and we are delighted to share the results of this relationship with our visitors. The Gallery is particularly well suited to the exploration of this subject because of the exceptional works donated by discerning collectors, such as Paul Mellon, Chester Dale, and Lessing J. Rosenwald," said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art, Washington. "A profound debt of gratitude is owed to our many lenders, both public and private, in the United States and France."

The Gallery is exceptionally rich in holdings by both artists, with one of the finest collections of works by Cassatt in existence, totaling 119, and the third largest collection of works by Degas in the world, totaling 158.

Exhibition Highlights

Degas/Cassatt is organized thematically over four galleries with a focus on the height of Degas and Cassatt's artistic alliance—the late 1870s through the mid-1880s. Included are oil paintings, pastels, and works on paper (etchings, lithographs, monotypes, and drawings), with several that were once in the artists' personal collections. Cassatt stated that her first encounter with Degas's art "changed my life," while Degas, upon seeing Cassatt's art for the first time, reputedly remarked, "there is someone who feels as I do."

A focal point of the exhibition is Cassatt's Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878). Degas's participation in this painting is known through a letter (also in the exhibition) that Cassatt wrote to her dealer Ambroise Vollard, but the details have remained a mystery. Recent cleaning and careful analysis of the brushwork, as well as x-radiographs and infrared images have revealed changes beneath the paint surface, providing clear evidence of Degas's intervention in Cassatt's picture.

Both artists explored alternate and mixed media, including distemper, tempera, and metallic paint, during a brief but intensive period of experimentation from 1878 to1879. A group of these daring and unconventional works are on view, including

Cassatt's Woman Standing Holding a Fan (1878/1879) and

Degas's Portrait after a Costume Ball (Portrait of Mme Dietz-Monnin) (1879),

which is being loaned for the first time in 60 years.

The show presents some of the most audacious and technically innovative etchings of the artists' careers done in anticipation of a new impressionist print publication that was never realized, Le Jour et la unit.

The exhibition includes the most comprehensive group of works depicting Cassatt at the Louvre, including prints, preparatory drawings, pastels, paintings, and an original copperplate.

Several important artistic juxtapositions are revealed throughout the exhibition, including

Cassatt's Young Woman in Black (Portrait of Madame J) (1883),

on view for the first time beside

Degas's Fan Mount: Ballet Girls (1879), which appears in the background of her painting.

Degas owned some 100 works by Cassatt—more than any other contemporary artist of his generation. Among the works in his collection at the time of his death was a unique set of 13 impressions of Cassatt's print The Visitor (c. 1881). Four of these impressions as well as the original softground preparatory drawing (also from Degas's personal collection) are included.

Although their friendship endured until Degas's death in 1917, their interactions decreased after the eighth and final impressionist exhibition in 1886. A small group of works dating to the 1890s is included in the exhibition to illustrate how their paths diverged.

The exhibition curator is Kimberly A. Jones, associate curator of French paintings, National Gallery of Art.

Published by the National Gallery of Art and DelMonico Books, an imprint of Prestel Publishing, the 176-page fully illustrated exhibition catalogue is available in softcover and hardcover. The catalogue includes essays by Jones, with contributions by Elliot Bostwick Davis, John Moors Cabot Chair, Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Erica E. Hirshler, Croll Senior Curator of Paintings, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Ann Hoenigswald, senior conservator of paintings, National Gallery of Art; Marc Rosen and Susan Pinsky, private dealers in impressionist and modern art; and Amanda T. Zehnder, associate curator of fine arts, Carnegie Museum of Art.


Little Girl in a Blue Armchair came to the Gallery from Paul Mellon, who also donated his extraordinary collection of works by Degas. Formerly part of Degas's personal collection,

Cassatt's Girl Arranging Her Hair (1886) was among the more than two dozen paintings and works on paper bequeathed to the Gallery by Chester Dale.

More images from the exhibition:

Edgar Degas
Mademoiselle Malo, c. 1877
oil on canvas
overall: 81.1 x 65.1 cm (31 15/16 x 25 5/8 in.)
framed: 106 x 90.8 cm (41 3/4 x 35 3/4 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection

Mary Cassatt
A Woman and a Girl Driving, 1881
oil on canvas
89.3 x 130.8 cm (35 3/16 x 51 1/2 in.)
framed: 109.9 x 150.5 cm (43 1/4 x 59 1/4 in.)
Philadelphia Museum of Art: Purchased with the W. P. Wilstach Fund, 1921
The Philadelphia Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY

Mary Cassatt
Portrait of Alexander J. Cassatt and His Son Robert Kelso Cassatt, 1884
oil on canvas
100 x 81.2 cm (39 3/8 x 31 15/16 in.)
framed: 120.7 x 100.3 cm (47 1/2 x 39 1/2 in.)
Philadelphia Museum of Art: Purchased with the W.P. Wilstach Fund and with funds contributed
by Mrs. William Coxe Wright, 1959
The Philadelphia Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY

Edgar Degas
Henri Degas and His Niece Lucie Degas (The Artist's Uncle and Cousin), 1875/1876
oil on canvas
unframed: 99.8 x 119.9 cm (39 5/16 x 47 3/16 in.)
The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis L. Coburn Memorial Collection