For a number of reasons, the subject of women in art can be a fraught discussion. There is a regrettable tendency to box them in categorically, to define and justify the presence of women artists throughout history in a way that befits the social order of the longstanding gentlemen’s club that is fine art. They are too often woven into the narrative of their male counterparts—try finding mention of Lee Krasner without Jackson Pollock, or Georgia O’Keeffe without Alfred Stieglitz. Or they are remembered for the perceived femininity of their subjects—think Frida Kahlo and Dorothea Lange, whose respective works, though world renowned, far surpass the simplification to which they are occasionally reduced. Sometimes it is simply difficult to view these artists on their own terms.
The most prominently misunderstood woman in art history is probably Mary Cassatt (1844 – 1926). In passing, she is remembered as something like the mistress or student of Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917), a woman who painted tender, melancholic scenes of French children and their gingerly attentive mothers. While this could not be further from any realm of accuracy, it seems to be the way that history has distorted Cassatt almost from the beginning of the scholarship surrounding her, specifically regarding her relationship with Degas. Today this erroneous snapshot is all but cemented in the public’s memory.
The truth, however, is far more complicated—and more interesting. When Degas first saw the work of Cassatt, all he saw was a like-minded artist with whom he longed to work. Upon first encountering her work he remarked, “There is someone who feels as I do.”
Cassatt was equally taken with Degas. She said that her first experience seeing his work “changed my life.” It was this shared sensibility that drew Degas’ attention and ultimately led to his inviting her to exhibit with the founding Impressionist painters. The two began to work together in a prolific collaboration of styles and ideas that lasted over a decade.
Cassatt became Degas’ most challenging contemporary, and their work informed one another’s throughout the pivotal first years of the Impressionist movement, which Degas is so widely credited in leading. Together they forged a new era of artistic thought.
At the National Gallery of Art through October 5, “Degas/Cassatt” focuses on the Impressionist years from the late 1870s through mid-1880s, when Degas and Cassatt worked most closely together. It is a thoughtful re-examination of the impact Cassatt had on Degas as an artist, which significantly modifies conventional wisdom regarding the “master/apprentice” relationship with which they have been typically associated.
The artists worked so closely during this time—drawing and painting side-by-side, talking and visiting museums together—that there is a deficit of personal correspondence with which to understand their professional partnership. There was no need to write, for they were always together. The most verifiable evidence of their artistic dialogue thus becomes the work itself.
The collection in this exhibit focuses on a number of loose but fascinating groupings, notably their mutual affinity for theater scenes, conspicuously interrelated print series and portraiture affectations, and, intriguingly, selections from their personal collections—for they were each discerning collectors of each others’ work.
It is clear that Degas and Cassatt had different interests in the theater. Long renowned for his paintings of dancers and their alluring backstage culture, Degas’ prints in this exhibit show the untamed carnival atmosphere of the theater in all its burlesque, chimerical splendor. Shadows of distorted figures stretch across the dark walls, disorienting the boundaries of distance, while performers make their way through forests of set-pieces. Intense spotlights pierce the backstage darkness, adumbrating the figures caught suspended in motion. He gives us a bacchanalian revelry that lurks just behind the curtain, intoxicating and exotic as a latent desire at the fringes of our minds.
Cassatt also explored the shadowed nuances of the theater, the distortion of shapes and figures, but from an altogether different position. She turned her attention away from the stage and onto the women in the audience, exploring the deformity of their shapes in their puffed-out dresses and the backlight that washes a ghostly halo around them. With their faces obscured by an enveloping darkness, they become forgotten souls left drifting in the wings.
Focusing her attention on young women in this way, Cassatt’s choice of subject matter is often misinterpreted as a sort of feminine fixation, as if being a woman she was predisposed to paint womanly things. However, these subjects occupy a far more complex arena of social undertones.
As a woman, Cassatt did not have access to the environments of her male contemporaries—she was not allowed backstage, nor could she enter the late-night stomping grounds of Degas and other fellow painters. Therefore, Cassatt chose women and children, a vast and neglected subject area. She imbued them with distortion and complexity both physical and psychological—from stifling social expectation, to ennui and effeteness—that is only now being fully understood. Her children are monstrously contorted. We realize now that when we look at the painting A Woman and a Girl Driving (1881), what we see is not necessarily the warm, benign postcard image of a mother and daughter, but a tense balance of social order, silently observed by both parties.
This was something which evidently interested Degas, who acquired and prominently displayed Cassatt’s Girl Arranging Her Hair (1886) in his home until the end of his life. This portrait of a young girl striving to achieve the grace she earnestly lacks, thick-armed and puffy-faced, fixed with an expression of vacant expectancy, is an unsettling reminder of the role she will inevitably play once she reaches maturity and gets taken up by a husband.
One room in the exhibition is almost entirely composed of Degas’ many studies of Cassatt. The way in which he depicts her shows a clear reverence for her spirit, as she looks out into museum galleries away from the artist while other women around her bury their faces in books to decipher the images on the walls.
Degas only painted one full portrait of Cassatt, the only one that exists. She leans forward on a wooden chair in a parlor, arms resting on her knees, and she holds a set of blurred cards or photographs in her hands. Her face is poised and intelligent, eyebrows raised over focused eyes cast slightly downward and into the distance. From behind her head, a violent explosion of white paint emanates. It could certainly be interpreted as the hazy glare of a gaslight. Or it could be the very expression of obscurity and misunderstanding, of a mind and vision buried by the white noise that kept her from the forefront of historical recognition. Until now.
Degas/Cassatt is on view at the National Gallery of Art through October 5. For more information visit www.nga.gov