For my Mother’s Day outing, I took my husband and two daughters, 9 and 13, to the National Gallery of Art’s new exhibition Degas/Cassatt with visions of ballerinas and rosy cheeked mothers and babies dancing in my head. The exhibition is on view on the main floor of the West Building through October 5, 2014.
Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was one of the founders of Impressionism. Ironically, he is perhaps best known for his sculpture “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” although it was the only sculpture he ever exhibited in his lifetime. The majority of his works were of ballerinas. Cassatt is best known for her works depicting mothers and children. In 1877, Degas invited American Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) to exhibit with the Impressionists. When they met, Degas said, “there is someone who feels as I do” and she said that Degas “had changed her life.” Both artists had much in common. They came from well-to-do, educated families, moved in the same circles, enjoyed doing interior scenes more than the other Impressionists, and experimented with printmaking. Degas collected around 100 of Cassatt’s works; while Cassatt promoted Degas to collectors in the United States. Their friendship would last until Degas’s death in 1917. Cassatt said of him, “He was my oldest friend and the last great artist of the 19th century.”
The first room of the exhibition displays their works created prior to Cassatt’s first Impressionist exhibition in 1879. The centerpiece of the room is Cassatt’s Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878). It shows a little girl resting on one armchair and a little dog resting on another chair. This painting has the most kid appeal of any in the exhibition. Degas contributed to its background.
The next room is mostly devoted to the artists’ prints. Degas had proposed a journal entitled Le Jour et la nuit (Day and Night) as a printmaking endeavor for his fellow Impressionists. The journal was never published but a number of prints exploring black-and-white imagery were created. This room has prints of nudes by both artists (nothing explicit). Cassatt’s The Loge, depicting two young ladies in a theater box, is the only painting in this room.
Degas’ other planned contributions to Le Jour et la nuit, a series of prints depicting Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery with her sister, are on view in the following room. Also of note is a portrait of Cassatt by Degas.
The final room focuses on art Degas and Cassatt gave each other as gifts or collected. Most of you will recognize Cassatt’s Girl Arranging Her Hair and print Maternal Caress. There are also two large paintings by her of women picking fruit and Woman and Girl Driving. In addition to depicting ballerinas, Degas was also interested in racehorses. Representative of these works is Scene from Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey.
When I was first introduced to Cassatt as a teenager, I thought she was saccharine. Now, that I have children, I appreciate her much more. I especially liked her pastel At the Theater, the Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, and the two prints Maternal Caress and Woman Bathing in the last room. My daughters surprised me by being very attracted to both Degas’ fans and Cassatt’s theater works with fans in them. Their favorite work was Little Girl in a Blue Armchair. My budding equestrian also liked Degas’ Scene from Steeplechase. All in all though, we were a little disappointed in the exhibition. Only a few of the many works captured our interest. We expected to see many more famous paintings. Much of the exhibition would appeal more to serious art historians than the general public. The exhibition would be a welcome addition to an outing to the National Gallery of Art but not worth a special visit on its own.
- To round out your visit, consider taking part in one of the Film Programs for children and teens that celebrates the exhibit Degas/Cassatt. Films are show in the West Building Lecture Hall and seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. View the full schedule online.
- An audio tour (which we did not purchase) is available for $5. The paperback catalog of the show is $35, hardback $50. Related merchandise, including children’s books and ballet-items, is available in most of the gift shops.
- Admission to the museum is free.
- Photo One: Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.
- Photo Two: Edgar Degas, Rehearsal in the Studio, c. 1878-1879. Collection of Shelburne Museum. Gift of Electra Webb Bostwick. © Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont.