Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas: The Intertwined Artistic Journeys of the Impressionist Companions

Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt Edgar Degas, pastel on cardboard. Sold for $9,000 USD via 1stBid (Jan 2024).

Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas were two influential artists of the late 19th century, forging the path for impressionist painting and drawing in their distinct ways. Closer consideration of their artworks and shared activities, however, reveals the intertwined nature of their practice and mutual admiration for one another.

Mary Cassatt - Mrs. Harris Whittemore and Baby Helen.

Mary Cassatt – Mrs. Harris Whittemore and Baby Helen. Auction Passed (Est: $300,000 USD – $500,000 USD) via Freeman’s (Dec 2023).

Cassatt and Degas: A Meeting of Kindred Spirits

Mary Cassatt’s 1878 painting Little Girl in a Blue Armchair is revered for its free painting style, widely regarded as the artist’s first true impressionist painting. In 2014, historians discovered the presence of someone else’s hand in the painting that marks this shift in style. Infrared images taken by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, revealed that Cassatt’s friend and colleague, Edgar Degas, had contributed a few brushstrokes to the work. In the corner of the canvas, technical analysis has shown evidence of paint being scraped or rubbed, a technique used only rarely by Cassatt but was characteristic of Degas’ works. The infrared images also show that Degas subtly changed the shape of the room, introducing diagonal lines to create an unexpected sense of perspective and negative shapes.

Degas and Cassatt formed an artistic relationship and friendship that lasted nearly 40 years, influencing and collecting one another’s work in Paris. The pair first met in 1877, when Degas visited Cassatt’s studio in Montmartre in Paris, however the two artists were aware of one another’s work well before then. Upon viewing Cassatt’s painting of a woman in a blue gown at the Salon exhibition in Paris in 1874, Degas pronounced, “This is someone who feels the way I do.” Cassatt admired Degas’s pastel works, who was well established in the group of Impressionist artists alongside Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Camille Pissarro. The two had much in common and in 1877, Cassatt joined this group of impressionist painters.

L'Etoile (The Star) by Edgar Degas.

L’Etoile (The Star) by Edgar Degas. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Although there is very little existing correspondence between Degas and Cassatt, making it difficult to know exactly what their friendship was really like, their artworks created between the late-1870s and mid-1880s are undeniable indicators of their relationship.

Cassatt exhibited Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, alongside 10 other paintings, in the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition in 1879, which marked her debut with the impressionists. This exhibition was a watershed moment for both Cassatt and Degas, as well as the other exhibiting artists. Cassatt chose to display certain paintings in coloured frames, while Degas included works in unusual formats such as a collection of painted fans – a marker of his appreciation for Japanese art. A tight knit group of painters formed from the organisation of this exhibition, consisting of Degas, Cassatt, Gustave Caillebotte, and Camille Pissarro. This was formative for the development of their methods and the impressionist movement more widely.

Collaborative Experimentation and Shared Admiration

Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt - Under the Horse Chestnut Tree, etching.

Mary Cassatt – Under the Horse Chestnut Tree, etching. Auction passed (Est: $25,000 USD – $35,000 USD) via Palm Beach Modern Auctions (Nov 2023).

Following the 1879 exhibition, Degas invited his fellow impressionists – including Cassatt – to work on a project titled, Le Jour et la Nuit, which was to be a journal of prints exploring light and shadow. This marked a period of great experimentation between Degas and Cassatt. The pair explored unconventional painting techniques such as tempera, distemper and metallic paints. Beyond Le Jour, this experimental period can be seen in works like Degas’s Portrait after a Costume Ball, where he used a variety of techniques, creating a frenzied surface of contrasting textures using smooth, matte pigment, broad strokes of metallic paint and light applications of pastel. In Cassatt’s paintings such as Woman Standing, Holding a Fan and Lydia Seated on a Porch, Crocheting, she tests out these materials and uses a delicate sheen of metallic paint across the oil paint. Her minimal uses of shimmering, gold paint, like in The Lodge, brought a sense of vitality to these works.

Another shared form of expression between Cassatt and Degas was the s-curve compositional device, whereby the movement of a model’s arms complement the angular pose of their torso. This can be seen in Degas’ pastel and charcoal piece, Woman Bathing in a Shallow Tub (1885) and his 1894 drawing Morning Toilet. Cassatt’s 1889 print Young Girl Fixing her Hair and oil painting Child Picking a Fruit (1893) employ this compositional device that brings the two artist’s works in conversation.

Cassatt and Degas were avid collectors of one another’s works, further iterating the intertwined nature of their practices. Their mutual appreciation for one another is brought to the fore in Cassatt’s In the Loge (1879). This painting was bought by Degas, and depicts a young woman seated in a box at the Paris Opera. This was the very setting where Degas sketched and studied dancers for his own paintings.

Edgar Degas - Au Louvre, La Peinture, Mary Cassatt.

Edgar Degas – Au Louvre, La Peinture, Mary Cassatt, c.1880. Auction passed (Est: CHF 1,000 – CHF 2,000) via TGP Auction (Jan 2024).

Model, Muse or Subject?

Degas frequently recruited his friends to model for his paintings and he also often turned to Cassatt. She is the subject of at least eight of his works, and some scholars attribute her likeness to many more. The unfinished painting, Mary Cassatt, is one of Degas’ most renowned portraits of the artist but is a work that she herself disliked. The painting shows Cassatt seated indecorously and informally. She is bent forward with her legs spread and elbows on knees.

Cassatt’s positioning as one of Degas’s favoured models or muses for his paintings brings to the fore some gender dynamics at play in their relationship. While both artists were on an equal footing when it came to their artistic talents, the gender dynamic between the pair is an important part of their artistic relationship in a society where women were more likely to be the object of the male artist’s gaze than to hold the paintbrush herself.

In Mary Cassatt, Degas seems to have been attempting to balance Cassatt’s position as feminine model and object of the gaze, by portraying her in a more masculine subject position that she assumed in her professional life and her unconventional identity as an artist. The location of the portrait is undetermined but the small pictures that Cassatt examines indicated that she might be in a photography studio. By suggesting that Cassatt is the subject of this portrait, holding objects associated with her career, Degas positions her as his peer and as a successful artist. Similarly in Degas’s etching, Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Painting Gallery (1879-80), Cassatt is depicted as entirely absorbed in her study of art. Additionally, she is shown as assured in her stance, leaning not on a typically feminine parasol but a man’s umbrella, and is dressed far more simply and severely than was the norm for women of the period.

Cassatt’s invitation by Degas into the Impressionist exhibition and thus encounter this group of artists was likely welcomed, since women artists were not able to freely mingle with men in cafes. It is also significant that Cassatt was never married, and lived what was regarded as an alternative lifestyle for a woman of her period. Her own mother described her as a woman who was “intent on fame and money. After all, a woman who is not married is lucky if she has a decided love for work of any kind and the more absorbing it is the better.” Perhaps if Cassatt had chosen the more traditional path of marriage to a man, her status as a relatively emancipated and successful woman artist would be different, and her artistic ties to Degas would also have been less likely.

Beyond the Final Impressionist Exhibition 

Although Cassatt and Degas’s friendship continued until his death, the final impressionist exhibition of 1886 marked a turning point in their relationship. Artistically, the pair began to move their practices in different directions. Cassatt became primarily concerned with the representation of mothers and children, and her impressionistic style shifted into a more precise method, focusing on bold colours and intricate patterns. Degas’s work, on the other hand, became progressively simplified, with vibrant colour and expressive brushwork.

Writing when Degas died in 1917, Cassatt’s feeling of great loss and continued admiration for the artist is revealed: “He was my oldest friend here,” she wrote, “and the last great artist of the nineteenth century.”