Saturday, May 31, 2014


A Memorial Day visit to the National Gallery on the Mall in Washington, DC to view their wonderful, current exhibition - Degas/Cassatt - which will run through early October, set my creative juices flowing. I never fail to walk away from time spent at a museum without finding much to inspire, think about and mull over as I take time to digest what I've seen and this visit did not disappoint. A side event, an unexpected additional exhibition of works by Andrew Wyeth, also caught my attention at the museum and I will dig into that one at a latter posting.

But for today, I wanted to speak about some of my favorite works from this marvelous exhibition of works by two of my favorite artists. Maybe 100 pieces hanging across the several gallery rooms, many of which I was familiar with, but also an equal number of etchings and drawings and paintings that I was not previously acquainted with, kept my rapt attention as I moved from one work to the next. 

In the work shown above, Cassatt's very well known Little Girl in a Blue Arm Chair, which was prominently displayed in the first gallery, an interesting discussion of the work drew great attention from the crush of visitors on a panel displayed in front of the work. It mentioned a letter evidently written by Mary Cassatt that discussed how Degas had actually worked on this canvas, having made suggestion on how to alter the work into a more dynamic composition from Cassatt's original blocking out of the various elements in the work. Quoted from the accompanying brochure to the exhibition, discovered during a recent cleaning and technical analysis of the work - "Under magnification, strokes of grayish almost silvery brown paint not found elsewhere in the picture are apparent in the corner of the room beyond the furniture. Evidence of intentional abrasion of the surface in this area also suggests the presence of a different artist's hand. Similar paint handling can be found in a number of Degas's works from this time, but is completely absent in Cassatt's work." The idea here basically was that, Cassatt having designed the work around a single, straight lined back wall across the upper margin of the work and parallel with the lower edge of the canvas, left the work rather flat and Degas, evidently, reworked the background to give a more angular and thus more dynamic movement to the room, which necessitated Cassatt's rework of the armless chair in the background as well as other aspects of that back wall. How interesting! 

As an artist, to be able to see how a master from the past was advised to make alterations to form a more interesting and appealing composition by a fellow master, reinforces that idea that we must make ourselves, as artists, open to the input of our peers; having another pair of eyes to look over our shoulder while at work and see aspects that we are not aware of (being so 'close' to our own work) is a much appreciated occurrence. As you can see in the image below of the same work, I've indicated with the tan line, the horizontal line that was Cassatt's original idea for the back wall, and with the brighter yellow line, the suggested and ultimately rendered angular stab that Degas offered.

And with that discussion of Degas's involvement in altering Cassatt's idea for this work, we find the crux of the impetus for this exhibition - the peer connection and friendship that was developed between these two remarkable artists in the later years of the 19th century and how they grew alongside one another, fed off each others ideas and personal explorations of painting their favorite subject matter - the human figure and depictions of 'modern' life - and intermixed with their fellow painters in France. 

Degas invited Cassatt to exhibit with the Impressionists in the late 1870s and the intense friendship and mutual respect for each others work began, continuing on, even after their work began to move in different directions, until Degas's death in 1917 (Cassatt having lived on till 1926).

I've long appreciated and respected the intense compositional workings of Degas and also the appealing depictions of family life that Mary Cassatt became so well known for, and to see the apparent collaboration that took place between the two during the 1870s in the works spotlighted in this exhibition, was eye opening. One Degas work in particular included in this assortment, reached out to me and I marveled again at his well-thought-out preliminary arrangement of all the elements of his overall design. In the image immediately below, you see his finished work, on the left (one of his iconic interiors with dancers) and on the right, how I've divided up his overall composition into the various triangles that each important group of elements occupy within the entire work. And also, in connection with his suggestion to Cassatt about shifting the angle of her back wall, you can see that, rather typically for Degas, he has partaken of that same dynamic thrusting of the back wall that immediately gives this work a more appealing viewpoint. What seems upon initial viewing of the work to be a sudden serendipitous encounter with a dance class full of students and musicians, is in actuality the result of well placed objects, features, figures and lines of perspective throughout, which move the viewer's eye around the work with specific intention; nothing is left to chance, nothing is indicated randomly.

In the grouping below, I've separated some of the various triangular segments that I outlined in the image on the right above of the overall composition so you can see more clearly how all fit together but also how each wedge encompasses a dominant grouping of the important individual elements that come together as a harmonious whole.

Through their friendship, Degas often used Cassatt as a model in his work, as shown below in Visit to the Museum, with Cassatt standing and her sister, Lydia, seated. I was very taken with this work and enjoyed seeing all the soft and lost edges that Degas used in the clothing and especially the background, only choosing to spark the work with more details and harder edges where absolutely needed to bring focus to the important aspects of the overall work (as seen in the details to the right).

In the Degas etchings below, Cassatt again is used as a model for this lovely figure study which, in the one to the left, has been colored over with pastel on the original monochromatic etching.

Yet another pair of etchings (below) reveal more explorations of the same theme and I really enjoyed seeing so many more in this series at the gallery. I was especially drawn into these through Degas's delineation of the strong angle of the stance and interesting implied gestural movements.

In the two finished paintings below, you can see on the right, a final version of the image from above that Degas wound up turning into a painting, one of many in the exhibition exploring that recurring theme based on museum viewing. On the left is one of Degas's iconic portraits of Mary Cassatt in which you can well see the scrubby brush work that helped to define Degas's hand within the analysis of Cassatt's girl in the blue chair.

This wonderful portrait, above, of Alexander Cassatt (Mary's brother and president of the Pennsylvania Railroad at the time) and his son, shows a very evocative pose by Cassatt and I was very taken with the intense abstract shapes formed by the black masses of the boy's outfit and Alexander's coat.

Degas and Cassatt both explored interesting combinations of materials and mediums in their works, incorporating metallic paint, distemper (pigment mixed with glue) and pastel, as indicated in the work below on the left, Degas's Portrait After a Costume Ball, and Cassatt's At the Theater which mixed pastel and gouache with metallic paint. Even though the character and 'feel' of each work are rather different, I felt a strong similarity at the same time, between both works as to their general softness and rendering of subject matter.

 After their decade or dozen years of a more intense working relationship, Degas and Cassatt began to find inspiration in divergent subject matter and Cassatt moved more toward the depiction of family life and a softer interconnection between mother and child, which she has now become more known for. The work below by Cassatt, was one I was not familiar with prior to my visit to the National Gallery and it really caught my attention for its unusual compositional form and lovely figurative rendering. I really studied the intense metallic 'feel' that she was able to develop on the carriage lamp as it sparkled at the focal point of the work.

These last two favorites of mine, above by Mary Cassatt, truly offered fine examples of her later works that featured more about the delicate interaction between her female subjects. I was especially intrigued by Cassatt's use of the very distinct 'S' shape in her composing of the work on the left - starting at the arm reaching up and moving through the body of the standing figure, across to her left arm running across and down the right arm of the seated figure and across to her hand holding the fruit. Random placements? Hardly.

I will relish digging through the catalog of this marvelous exhibition and discovering more about the remarkable connections between Degas and Cassatt and would recommend highly, a summer visit to the National Gallery to see this incredible sampling of their interconnected ideas and works.

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