Note: See works by Mary Cassatt and 36 others in Her Paris: Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism only through January 15!
Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas had a creatively productive friendship that lasted nearly 40 years. Their complicated relationship, one marked in turn by warm camaraderie and cold shoulders, encouraged both artists to embrace experimentation and new approaches.
Cassatt initially found success at the Paris Salon when she first exhibited there in 1872 and again in 1874. It was here where Degas first noticed her work, and not knowing she was a woman, is said to have remarked to a friend: “There is someone who feels like I do!” When her works were turned down by the Salon jury in 1877, Degas asked her to consider radically changing course. Cassatt wrote:
I submitted again. They rejected it. That was when Degas made me promise never to submit anything to the Salon again, and to exhibit with his friends in the group of the impressionists. I agreed gladly. At last I could work absolutely independently, without worrying about the possible opinion of a jury! I hated conventional art. I was beginning to live.
Cassatt often wrote that Degas’ opinion was the only one that she could count on. Curiously, she ended up burning almost every letter between them, so we don’t know the full extent of their relationship. We do know that Degas was a bit of a curmudgeon whose friendships with many people were often strained. Cassatt later recalled:
Degas sometimes became angry because he could not find any weaknesses in me, and sometimes we did not see each other for months at a time, until something I had painted brought us back together again.
The pair’s artistic exchange continued for many years, until Degas’ death in 1917. In the exhibition Degas: A Passion for Perfection (Opens February 11, 2018), look for Degas’ painting Three Women at the Races, which likely features Mary Cassatt as one of Degas’ models.
Image: Edgar Degas, Three Women at the Races (Trois femmes aux courses), about 1885. Pastel on paper; 27 x 27 in. Denver Art Museum: anonymous gift, 1973.234.