Degas and Cassatt

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In the wonderful Edgar Degas-Mary Cassatt special exhibition at the National Gallery of Art (Washington D.C.), there are signs everywhere of how our art and our way of seeing is molded by other artistes. Cassatt, the only American painter to have exhibited along with the Impressionists, takes notes from Degas. In her wonderful, brilliantly colored Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, we see how she changed her painting to accommodate Degas’ inputs. At first, she had the flat line of the walls in the background. She changes it so there is dynamic movement as one wall meets another. In this painting, we see the process behind the work, the gradual learning and experimentation that is part of the journey for every artiste, however prolific they may be in later stages of their career.

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In this exhibition, there is a painting of horses and a jockey fallen on the ground by Degas that also shows the process behind the work. It is a painting that normally doesn’t come to mind when we think of Degas’ work. As someone who was known for continually changing and re-working his paintings, there is a rubbed- out drawing of a horse in the upper portion as Degas changed the composition and painted the horse lower in the painting. This transparent approach, this ability to experiment and let that experiment show endears Degas to me. The painting itself looks almost bare bones, and there is mention of Degas not wanting to sell the painting because it was still in-process and he thought that the work would be highly valued not for its inherent merit and achievement but for the painter who painted it.

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The exhibition also has fans that Degas painted as well as prints that both Degas and Cassatt made and that were to be included in Degas’ Le jour et la nuit (The day and the night), a magazine that was conceptualized by him to showcase black and white prints.

The mediums that both aristes worked in, the experimentation that they did are sometimes play, sometimes meditation. Some processes speak of long patience, the others are experiments that moved their art forward. There are no mistakes, there is only the process of becoming more of who they are.

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Although they remained friends for the length of their lives, Cassatt and Degas went their separate ways at a later stage, Cassatt now painting more classical-looking paintings of mothers and children while Degas went further with his experiments. Their paintings speak of the languages we can borrow, the languages we can learn, the paths we explore and ultimately the choosing of the direction of our work.

As I look at the different paintings, what strikes me is the supreme faith with which an artiste works. There is the exploration in the darkness, the moving forward, the sensing and the making out of the shape of things before they are fully seen. There is a sense of excitement in this not knowing, there is a sense of putting one foot after another and letting your path take shape in front of you.

As I look at the exhibition and take it all in, I marvel at this movement in ambiguity and wish for this faith for myself. Did they know whether things would work out for them? Did they believe they were moving in the right direction?

Did their work make them happy?

I have to believe it did. How can you go ahead like this, trying and experimenting, learning bit by bit without getting rewarded by the process as you give it your attention.

I feel the artiste within me light up. I feel kin to these people. I know a little about who they were. I know that they were moving into darkness and out of it, lighting their own little fires to show them the way.

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