Degas / Cassatt

Cassatt by Degas

Last month, I went in to the National Gallery to see their Degas/Cassatt exhibit before it closed.  The exhibit was a fascinating glimpse into a long-time friendship between two artists — and the ongoing conversations that informed both their work.

Degas and Cassatt shared certain artistic interests and sensibilities.  Both depicted spaces of performance, dabbled in printmaking, and explored the ways Japanese art might influence their own formal innovations.  Through their lifelong collegial exchange, the artists encouraged each other’s growth; collected each other’s prints, drawings, and paintings — and occasionally even challenged one another to creative projects.  But they each developed distinct paths and diverged frequently in their approaches; their friendship was a matter of mutual artistic admiration and not one of influence.

Cassatt Print

In telling this story of artistic friendship, the exhibit also offered fresh insight into each artist.  The exhibit included works by both Degas and Cassatt that I had never seen, and reframed slightly the narrative of each’s artistic development.  Certain aspects of their work were lingered over for a beat longer than they would be in a traditional solo exhibit; more attention was given to the process of creative growth and experimentation than to the resulting masterpieces.  The artists’ sketches and shared period of intensive printmaking wound up being an illuminating glimpse into each of their individual creative trajectories.

And some of these lesser-exhibited works were absolutely stunning.  Cassatt’s Japanese-inspired print above is just luminous in is color, pattern, and flattened planes.  Degas’s fans, which I had never seen before this, are extraordinary: the reproduction below does not come close to the metallic depth and vibrancy of this palate, nor the delicacy and detail of those dancers.

Degas - Fan Mount - Ballet Girls - 1879

Perhaps my favorite piece in this exhibit of memorable pieces is Degas’s pastel portrait of Cassatt at the Louvre.  He did a series of these drawings and paintings, capturing something of her relaxed, spirited engagement with the art that surrounds her.  These portraits, like the story of their friendship, reveal the interchange between artists and artistic community.

The Degas / Cassatt exhibit closed earlier this fall, but there’s a new Degas exhibit on view now at the National Gallery.  This one, on his Little Dancer, is held in conjunction with a world-premier performance commissioned by the Kennedy Center to explore the ramifications of the artist’s sculpture in the life of the real-life ballet dancer who posed for it.  I’m going to see the performance with a friend this week, and am so intrigued by these intersections between art, ballet, and storytelling.  The performance runs through November 30, though the exhibit stays open to January 11.  Have any of you been to see it?


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