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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
As for lhe personal side of lheir relationship, il is impossible Io slale precisely ils limils. From lhe firsl lhere seems to have been a special intimacy belween lhem, perhaps due Io lhe sinking similarity of lheir backgrounds; for, unlike mosl of lhe other artisls of lhe impressionisl coterie, lhey came from comparatively well-off families, lhough lheir falhers—Degas’ was a banker—were bolh somewhat feckless. And lhere was anolher bond. Degas’ mother was an American, and he visited his malernal relatives in New Orleans in 1872. Now and lhen he and Mary Cassatt spoke of louring the United States togelher. But their personal lives were always shielded by an impenetrable privacy. “He never indulged in personal gossip,” Ambroise Vollard, the distinguished picture dealer and friend of both, commented when asked about Degas. And Mary Cassatt, at the end of her life, destroyed all of Degas’ letters to her as she had destroyed her portrait of him, apparently as a means of preserving inviolate their personal privacy. Louisine Elder called this a great pity, for “no one understood him better.” In the few letters of Mary Cassatt to Degas that have survived, there is a scrupulous avoidance of anything personal. It is only in Degas’ letters to other people that we have a glimpse of his feelings toward his American friend. In one he worries because she has taken a ground-floor studio and might find it unhealthy; in another he is in a frenzy of concern because she has had a fall from a horse. But it is in a letter to Count Ludovic Lepic, a painter friend who was also a famous breeder of dogs, that we have Degas’ feelings revealed best of all. Both he and Mary Cassatt shared a deep passion for animals, and Degas even composed a sonnet in honor of her parrot, Coco. In this letter, though he is ostensibly asking for a dog, Degas sounds as though he is expressing love:
I think it only right that I should inform you that the person who wants this dog is Mlle Cassatt [ sic ], that she has turned to me in this matter because I am known for the quality of my dogs and my affection for them, similar to my affection for old friends, etc., etc. I don’t think it is necessary for me to give you any information about her. …
This distinguished person, by whose friendship I am as honored as you would be in my place, has asked me to be sure that you send her a young dog, young enough to love her.
Although not all of their biographers agree, Pierre Cabanne, who wrote a life of Degas, insisted that there was something physical between them. He felt that the similarity of their tastes and interests and their almost identical intellectual dispositions were “to transform their friendly relations into a love affair, the duration and intensity of which we know nothing.” Just how difficult indeed it would be to know is revealed by Daniel Halévy, whose father, Ludovic—a librettist for Offenbach—was one of Degas’ closest friends:
Miss Cassatt was an old friend. … We assumed that they were close friends. … Never did I hear Miss Cassatt’s name on Degas’s lips. During the severe winter of 1917 it was Miss Cassatt who informed the family that the presence of a woman was necessary at the bedside of the dying painter.
Over the years there were a number of women Degas was interested in, including a cousin of Halévy’s to whom he proposed, and Mary Cassatt had at least one suitor, James Stillman, the fabulously rich head of the National City Bank, who, after the turn of the century, wanted to marry her. But the relationship between Degas and Cassatt was a very special one. After Degas’ death she wrote to a friend: “His death is a deliverance but I am sad, he was my oldest friend here. …”
If one is looking for a reason why they never married—each other or anyone else—it is to be found in their old-fashioned sense of family responsibility, a responsibility both accepted without question. In 1878, the year after Degas met Mary Cassatt, his brother committed suicide on the floor of the Bourse, the French stock exchange, in Paris. He had gone bankrupt. The scandal to the noble de Gas family—as it was originally spelled—was such that the painter’s sister moved to South America, and he, though he had no legal obligation to do so, spent years paying off all his brolher’s debts. The effect of this was to lurn Degas into something of a miser and to bring out misanlhropic elemenls in his characler. It also made him pul out of his mind all ideas of marriage. In 1896, when Daniel Halévy told him that he was going to be married, Degas commented sadly: “Oh, yes. I am alone. … It’s a good thing to marry.”
And in the same year in which she met Degas, a large part of Mary Cassatt’s family moved to Paris, suddenly making her responsible for a highly eccentric father, an ailing mother, and a semi-invalid sister. She was not to be free again until after her mother’s death in 1895. This is not to say that the Cassatts were not a devoted and close-knit family, for they were. They loved Paris, art, and one another; and they provided Mary with a place to live and with free and willing models, a not unimportant saving when the family’s modest circumstances were considered.