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“I do not admit that a woman can draw like that,” said Degas when he saw one of her pictures
December 1973 | Volume 25, Issue 1
Fortunately the Salon was no longer the only center of the Parisian art world. Beginning in 1874 a group, one of whose leaders was her idol Degas, had begun holding independent exhibitions. They called themselves The Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers, and their shows, which attracted thousands of people, were the most exciting artistic events in Paris. Not that the critics gave their approval. At the very first, Monet’s dazzling Impression, Sunrise was the object of a jeering label that soon attached itself to all the exhibitors—impressionist. And after viewing the 1876 exhibition the critic for the prestigious Le Figaro wrote:
The Rue Le Peletier is an unfortunate street. The Opera House burned down, and now a new disaster has fallen upon the quarter. There has opened at Durand-Ruel’s an exhibition said to be of paintings. The innocent visitor enters and a cruel spectacle startles him. Here five or six lunatics, one of them a woman, have elected to show their pictures. There are visitors who burst into laughter when they see these objects, but for my part, I am saddened by them. These so-called artists term themselves intransigeants, impressionistes . They take paint, brushes, and canvases, throw a few colours on the surface at random, and sign their names. In the same way insane persons pick up pebbles on the road and believe they are diamonds.
Indeed, they were shocking to a public used to the fine brushwork, obvious composition, and approved subjects—often historical—of the typical Salon painter. Here, instead, by use of bold brushstrokes, a variegated surface, and subtle composition, the new artists attempted to capture their first impression of the most ordinary things: a bunch of flowers, a haystack, a ballet dancer. They were, in fact, the heirs of the great Courbet. Always looking for new painters to show in the exhibitions, Degas had not forgotten Mary Cassatt, and in 1877 he asked a friend to introduce them. The meeting took place in the American’s studio, and after an hour of studying her pictures Degas invited her to join his friends. Mary Cassatt did not hesitate: “Finally,” she wrote, “I could work with absolute independence wilhoul concern for lhe evenlual opinion of a jury. Already I had recognized lhose who were my lrue masters. I admired Manel, Courbet, and Degas. I detested convenlional art. I began to live.”
Degas is the key to Mary Cassatt’s life. Her work was deeply influenced by his theory thai a painting was “an original combination of lines and lones which set each other off,” she concurred in his admiration of lhe greal French draftsman Ingres, and she shared his enthusiasm for the Italian masters—Parmigiano, Giotto, and Fra Angelico. As their friendship ripened Degas visited her sludio almosl daily, crilicizing her work; and in one inslance al least, Little Girl in the Blue Armchair , he actually painted in some of the background. His lelters are filled with recommendations to dealers and friends to buy her paintings and lithographs. And, in 1879, he paid her the supreme compliment of asking her to join with him and Pissarro in launching ajournai that would feature splendidly reproduced prints by famous artists. The journal, which was to be called Le Jour et La Nuit , was never launched, but under Degas’ inspiration Mary Cassatt began drawing on copper, producing wonderful dry points of her mother, father, sister, and a hoard of nieces and nephews, a collection that is one of the great records of an American artist’s family. Degas’ contribution to the stillborn journal were two prints—both of Mary Cassatt. Later he did a painting of his American friend in which she is shown leaning forward, a smile on her witty face, one of her beloved elaborate hats on her head, and in her hands three photographs probably laken by Degas himself, who was an enlhusiaslic cameraman. This was nol lhe only time Degas painted Mary Cassatt. Once, after Louisine Elder recognized her in one of his “milliner” piclures, she asked if Mary often posed for her friend. “When he finds lhe movemenl difficull, and lhe model cannot seem Io gel his idea,” she replied. Unforlunalely, Mary Cassatt destroyed the one porlrail she painled of Degas.