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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

“Mary Cassatt” by Edgar Degas

"Mary Cassatt" by Edgar Degas

“Mary Cassatt” by Edgar Degas

“Mary Cassatt” by Edgar Degas depicts the American impressionist artist who was a lifelong friend of Degas and served as a model for him on several occasions. Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844 – 1926) was an American painter who lived much of her adult life in France, where she first befriended Edgar Degas and later exhibited among the Impressionists. Stifled by traditional art, she regarded her exposure to the work of Edgar Degas in 1874 as a turning point in her artistic life.

Despite her high regard for Degas’ work, Cassatt did not like this portrayal of her, commenting:

“It has artistic qualities but is so painful and represents me as a person so repugnant that I would not wish it to be known that I posed for it.”

Cassatt admired Degas, whose pastels had made a powerful impression on her, she later recalled. “It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it.” She felt comfortable with the Impressionists and joined their cause enthusiastically. Unable to attend cafes with them without attracting unfavourable attention, she met with them privately and at exhibitions. She now hoped for commercial success selling paintings to the sophisticated Parisians who preferred the avant-garde. Her style had gained a new spontaneity, as she had adopted the practice of carrying a sketchbook with her while out-of-doors or at the theatre and recording the scenes she saw.

Cassatt and Degas

Cassatt and Degas had a long period of collaboration. The two had studios close together, less than a five-minute stroll apart. They had much in common: they shared similar tastes in art and literature, came from affluent backgrounds, had studied painting in Italy, and both were independent, never marrying. Degas introduced Cassatt to pastel and engraving, both of which Cassatt quickly mastered, while for her part Cassatt was instrumental in helping Degas sell his paintings and promoting his reputation in America.

Degas, Cassatt, and Mary’s sister, Lydia, were often to be seen at the Louvre studying artworks together. Degas produced two prints depicting Cassatt at the Louvre looking at artworks while Lydia reads a guidebook. Cassatt frequently posed for Degas, notably for his millinery series trying on hats.

Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas (1834–1917) was prolific in paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings. He was fond of the subject of dance, and more than half of his works depict dancers. He is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism, although Degas rejected the term, preferring to be called a Realist. He was masterly in depicting movement, as can be seen in his many masterpieces of dancers, racecourse subjects and female nudes.

Mary Cassatt

Edgar Degas

Reflections

  • Why did Mary Cassatt hate this portrait of herself, painted by her friend Edgar Degas?

A Tour of the National Portrait Gallery of America

Edgar Degas Quotes

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“Beauty is a mystery, but no one knows it anymore.
The recipes, the secrets are forgotten.”

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“The creation of a painting takes as much trickery and premeditation as the commitment of a crime.”

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“Everyone has talent at twenty-five. The difficulty is to have it at fifty.”

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“I should like to be famous and unknown.”

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“Muses work all day long and then at night, get together and dance…”

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“Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.”

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“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

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“We were created to look at one another, weren’t we?”

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“Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.”

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“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
– Edgar Degas

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Photo Credit: Edgar Degas [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

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