New DC exhibit examines Degas & Cassatt

WASHINGTON (WUSA9) -- "The Ballet Rehearsal," "The Little Girl in the Blue Arm Chair," Edward Degas and Mary Cassatt were responsible for some of the most iconic pieces in the world.

They were both famous artists in their own right, but they've been inextricably linked since Cassatt made her debut with the impressionist group in 1879. It's that common ground that sparked National Gallery of Art Curator Kimberly Jones to pair them in an exhibit.

"People tend to think they know these artists, they know Degas and the ballerinas they know Cassatt as the painter of mothers and children, but there's so much more than that," says National Gallery of Art curator Kimberly Jones.

Aside from their work, the two aren't easily linked; there's the obvious age difference, their nationalities and gender, but Jones knew there was something else there.

"I was really struck by the dialogue between these two paintings, they speak to each other, the compositions are similar, the scale is similar, the pose, and yet they are very distinct qualities," says Jones.

Jones wanted to prove a deeper connection, and she did, with a letter from Cassatt to her dealer in 1903. "In which she talks about the genesis of the painting and how Degas advised her on the work and admired it, and he even worked on the background," says Jones.

That was the catalyst she needed, the two worked together at some point, but where? And then, she found it.

"This is our smoking gun," says Jones as she pointed at a spot on "The Little Girl in the Blue Armchair."

The undeniable evidence jumped out at Jones. "Up to this point in Mary Cassatt's career, traditionally her figures would be set against a flat background." But not in this painting, if you look closely at the background of "The Little Girl in the Blue Armchair," you can see a subtle brown stroke. That, Jones says, changed the space of canvas tremendously. That, was the work of Degas. Infrared analysis further proved her theory.

"That was interesting, too, because he didn't take over the canvas. He didn't dominate he simply just gave her a suggestion. It was just a little introduction, a little tweaking and then she went on with it," says Jones.

The relationship went both ways; Cassatt also influencing Degas. Visible proof in Degas' pieces where he used metallics, which was a very unusual material during that time period, something he picked up from Cassatt. "They were clearly working together in this the back and forth," says Jones.

The two remained friends the rest of their lives. In fact, Degas owned more work of Cassatt than any other artist. He even painted her, and those original portraits are also portrayed together, for the first time. "The friendship was always the foundation, the respect was firm," says Jones of their relationship.

The exhibit is full of firsts, including "Rehearsal in the Studio" by Degas. It's one of the first and likely the last times it will be on display in our area. "It will be a revelation for people," says Jones. There's a whole new side to both artists that's being explored.

The exhibit is now on display at the National Gallery of Art until October.


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