When Edgar Degas met Mary Cassatt

First Encounters Sorel and Sorel

Nancy Caldwell Sorel
Saturday 02 March 1996 00:02

After the Civil War it became the fashion for young American women to go off to Paris to study art. This was no ticket to Bohemia. The aspiring femme peintre lived with family friends, was prodigiously chaperoned, and after a year or two returned home.

Mary Cassatt was not of that mould. In Paris she studied, she observed, she painted; she visited Italy to do more of the same. She had no intention of returning to America. In 1872, one of her pictures was accepted by the Salon - an achievement almost unheard-of for a young American of either sex. Two years later Edgar Degas saw her portrait, Ida, there and felt an instant affinity; she, in turn, would press against an art-shop window, admiring his pastels.

By 1877 Cassatt's work had become more and more Impressionist and had been twice rejected by the Salon. It was, Degas thought, time to call. In her studio at the edge of Montmartre, he found himself treading on Turkish carpets, peering at beautifully framed paintings hung against tapestried walls and lit by a great hanging lamp. It was his preferred ambience. Before he left, he invited her to exhibit with the Independents. "Most women paint as though they are trimming hats," Degas said. "Not you."

Thus began a 40-year relationship. At first they were seen everywhere together. Degas produced a series of pastels, drawings and etchings of Cassatt at the Louvre; viewed usually from behind, slim and elegant, she is absorbed in the art before her. It was a condition he understood, as she understood his perfectionism: when a model could not get the particular gesture he was after, Cassatt would place the desired hat on her own head and pose for him herself. On occasion they quarrelled, reconciled, quarrelled again - never as lovers, which they were not, always as fierce independents.

Degas was not above making Cassatt the butt of derogatory jokes about women painters. But she had the last word. Late in his life, she arranged for their work to hang together in New York to benefit a cause she knew he never would have sanctioned - women's suffrage

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