Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt
April 6, 1915 — Exhibition at the galleries of M. Knoedler & Co., New York City
After they met, some time later, long years of friendship ensued, of mutual criticism, and, I must frankly add, of spicy estrangements, for Degas was addicted to the habit of throwing verbal vitriol, as the French call it, upon his friends, and Miss Cassatt would not have been the daughter of the Cassatts if she had not been equal to parrying his thrusts. She could do without him, while he needed her honest criticism and her generous admiration. I have been amused during the long years I have known them at the little luncheons or dinners planned ‘by friends in order to effect a pleasant reconciliation. In certain of De-gas’s pictures one can recognize Miss Cassatt as she helped him out of a difficulty by posing for a turn of the head or a movement of the hand. She can be easily seen in one of “The Milliners” series. Degas’s admiration for Miss Cassatt was unbounded, •but there was always a little dart in his remarks. “I will not admit a woman can draw like that!” he exclaimed, as he stood before one of her pictures. And again he said of that picture of the boy standing by the mirror, which now hangs before you: “The greatest picture of the nineteenth century,” and added sarcastically: “It is the little Jesus and his English nurse.” I have not time to begin to tell you of the many incidents of bygone years, of Degas’ dinners and his beefsteak pies, of Miss Cassatt’s evenings at home, where so many interesting people listened to her brilliant conversation, nor of her luncheons, where State and Church met and it took a Clemenceau to calm the resulting agitation. I must hurry on and say a word or two about their art, and I shall try to say it as simply as possible.
Miss Cassatt has often said that to make a great collection it is necessary to have the modern note. To be a great painter you must be classic as well as modern. Now, Degas was pre-eminently a classicist, “painting contemporaneous subjects as the Greeks chiselled the history of their wars in wonderful bas reliefs upon their temple walls,” or decorated their tombs with scenes from their heroes’ lives. He is a primitive of our own day, seeing things as they really are, depicting life in its terrible reality. Many things have been said and have been written about Degas, but the truest of all was said about him by Miss Cassatt: “He is a philosopher, and there it is.” True, a Diogenes living in his tub, if you will, hunting for and exposing hypocrisy, but always searching, analyzing, philosophizing. Unlike the impressionists, he rarely painted out of doors. A Parisian in thought and temperament, he haunted the boulevards, the cafes, the opera, the racetracks. With an eye as keen as the early Italians for the reality of things, he observed and reflected, and when the picture was produced it was not merely a cafe concert, a ballet rehearsal or “jockey with race horses.” It was the subject treated from its profoundest depths to its minutest detail.
The “Cafe Concert” which you see before you is not, perhaps, the attractive place we Americans recall on the Champs Elysees, but rather a true record of what it really is. The dazzling lights are there, the gay crowd is suggested, but you cannot fail to see the crass banality of the scene. A woman stands upon the stage singing a popular song, “Le chanson du chien.” Look at her and observe the common type. You feel at once that she has crowded herself into the uncomfortable gown, that the gloves are a strange annoyance to her. There is nothing elegant about her pose. Her hands suggest the movement of a dog, and the gesture is done as only Degas could do it with a flash of drawing. The lines of the mouth, as she bawls forth the vulgar song, her exultant exaggeration, showing she is conscious of her power over her audience, all this and much more which I have not time to point out to you show clearly what the cafe chantant is, what part it plays in Parisian life, the kind of creature that furnishes the amusement, and although you cannot see them distinctly, you know immediately the class of pleasure seekers who can be entertained by such a performance. Degas, the keen, subtle philosophiser, reveals the cafe concert as it is from his heart and core, from cause to effect. The ballet interested him perhaps more than any other subject during his working years, and although he loved to pose Mile. Mauri upon the tips of her toes and make her gauzy skirts vibrate with the most enthralling harmonies of color, it was not thus that he cared to interpret the ballet. He preferred to portray the sinuous sleek little creatures who come up from the heart of Paris with their hard-worked mothers to present themselves at the opera and seek an entrance to the school which will enslave the best part of their young lives and make them the untiring pupils of Plucque, the venerable maître de danse. You can see them to the life in that picture over there called “La Famille Mante,” and again in that other one called “Waiting.” Degas painted them just as they were in character and in pose, relaxing tired muscles in easy attitudes in the foyer, exchanging coarse jests or indulging in the “can-cans” of the quartier. The philosopher knew their bone and breeding and gave them to us no worse and no better than they were. It was his favorite subject. The difficulties fascinated him and he conquered them with almost incredible skill. His pencil seemed like a live wire as he drew the floating figures or caught a fleeting gesture. As no other painter of modern times, he could put atmosphere around the rows of gliding forms and lift the fleecy draperies with the movement of the dance.
I once had the temerity to ask Degas why he always painted scenes from the ballet. “Because, madame,” he answered, “nowhere else can I find so well the combined movements of the Greeks.” Again philosophy. Think of the remark as you come here to study these pictures and it will explain much to you. I want to say a word to those who are to listen to me to-day and honestly wish to learn something about art. Let me tell you that this exhibition will give you an opportunity such as may not occur again in a long, long time, and, as far as I know, has never been offered before — that of comparing the old with the new, of seeing the masters of the Flemish school beside those of the French modern school. When I asked Miss Cassatt for advice about this exhibition she at once answered: “I advise you to put a Ver Meer of Delft near the Degas and let the public look first at the one and then at the other. It may give them something to think about.” Through the generosity of a kind collector I have been able to accomplish this, and in the adjoining gallery you will find one of the best examples of Ver Meer’s works. He was perhaps the greatest genre painter of the Dutch school and painted with such painstaking care that I believe he left only about forty pictures, and some of these are disputed. Nearly all are small, and the subjects are homely and very simple in character. You see a woman weighing her pearls, another filling a glass from a pitcher, but the sunlight and atmosphere which the painter imparts to his subjects astonish us. He, too, was a painter of contemporaneous subjects, and possibly was found fault with on that account in his day. I beg of you to look, as Hamlet said, first on this picture and then on that, and to observe and to consider.
One word more. I have often been asked by friends — some were earnest and some were curious — and there is a great difference between the two — to talk to them about art. If art could be learned through talking, my friends, we would all be artists. I suppose they think I have absorbed it, but I assure you I have not. If I know anything on the subject I have learn- ed it just as you can do during this exhibition, which I have requested Mr. Knoecller to make as long as possible for the very purpose of education. You must come here and look, and look with an eye that will grow more intelligent at each visit. You will never “learn art”, as many express it, with your backs toward the pictures, as I have seen visitors do frequently in galleries, while they rhapsodize with some friend in a very silly manner. If you wish to study envelopment, which is generic term for the expression of life in a picture, there arc sis Rembrandts hanging in the next room. Go and look at them again and again. Let me just suggest to you that almost all the great painters of that period had the advantage of going, to Italy and studying the primitives there. Rembrandt was one of the very few who remained at home and created out of his own consciousness his many masterpieces. If you wish to know what style is go look at the Bronzino. It is a pure style, from the curl of his lip to the pose of his hand and the turn of his head, or for pleasing distinction and elegant charm select the lovely Van Dyck. Give your deep attention to Rubens for facility of execution, broad brush strokes and a very wizard’s way of painting flesh. Rubens is the painter’s painter. I don’t know how many before him, but I do know from Delacroix to the present day painters will make a pilgrimage to Antwerp, to Dresden, to Madrid, just to study the works of Rubens. For chiaroscuro, for luminous shadows that carry the light into the darkest corners, for careful drawing and delicate composition, you can still find them all in the canvases of Terbourgh and de Hoogh, so that I may frankly say that if any one earnestly desires to educate himself in a knowledge of art, this present exhibition will afford him an excellent opportunity.
Reluctantly I must go on, and how much more could be said about Degas, about his ‘ wonderful nudes, his milliners, his horses, with their jockeys! I have only time for a few words about Miss Cassatt. Think of it, a few words to describe the work of a long life! of hours that began at 8 in the morning and lasted until dark. Well knowing I cannot say the “half of it all,” I am going to begin at the end and speak of her latest works first, of those she did last winter especially for this exhibition and that have not been exhibited here until to-day. I want to point them out to you. First there is the pastel “Mother Holding a Child Asleep in Her Arms,” a naughty little child was posed so badly that the kind-hearted painter let it climb into that position, put its head down upon its mother’s shoulder and go to sleep, while she put the tenderness she felt for the little one on the canvas before her. It is clearly in her latest manner, strong drawing, great freedom of technique and a supreme mastery of color, which is one of Miss Cassatt’s artistic assets. Then there is the oil painting of the mother in a hat holding her baby in her arms, remarkable for atmosphere and light and with a beautiful bit of outdoor background, including a classic cedar that stood close by the villa at Grasse. Perhaps of the five the pastel of the peasant with her ‘kerchief on her head and her child in her lap is the most appealing as well as the most masterly work. The child is so beautifully drawn and modelled and the movement so naive and childlike that you feel it is the success, even in a series of remarkable achievements. Miss Cassatt, the painter of maternity, has given a new note in the painting of children, namely, their infinite variety of movement. Look at that little child that has just thrown herself against her mother’s knee, regardless of the result and oblivious to the fact that she could disturb “her mamma.” And she is auite right, she does not disturb her mother. Mamma simply draws back a bit and continues to sew, while little daughter rests her elbows upon mamma’s knee. Such a movement never could have been except just between mother and little daughter, and Miss Cassatt has caught and expressed it with all the beautiful accessories of flowers and of color and of light. How often have friends said to me: “Won’t you ask Miss Cassatt to paint my little girl?” I would like to have her painted just like that.” Well, the “just like that” means years of study and observation and a large proportion of artistic insight added to the recipe.
Of her color I need say little. She long ago won the right to be considered a great colorist. She feels and expresses it as a gifted musician expresses harmonies when his fingers wander over the keys. With all her brilliance, she maintains a balance of tone. It is a natural expression of her art just as the maternal sentiment is interwoven with the formula of every new composition. Let me tell you, I, who have lived with her and know the method of her labors, that it is an exhausting process to compose a picture, to combine your colors, to remember the very strokes and hatchings, from sitting to sitting, to say nothing of the infusion of your own soul into the work you undertake. I will conclude with just one little story about a much talked of portrait. Miss Cassatt refused to let the Luxembourg or the Petit Palais have that portrait, anyway, not until after it had been exhibited here. I mean the “Lady at the Tea Table.” Last spring, when she left the Riviera and returned to Paris, I suggested that she should go through all the store closets in her apartment and into the big chest in the corridor where she kept her drawings and the studies for her pictures and see what would come forth. Mathilde, the faithful, was given the task, and faithfully did she accomplish it. I can tell you artistic Paris was very happy over the result. You can see some of these drawings and some of her colored etchings now at the Durand Ruel Galleries. I should like to tell you about those etchings, but I have not the time.
When I entered her apartment one afternoon, Miss Cassatt showed me “The Lady at the Tea Table” and said: “Tell me what you think of that.” I looked and answered: “Very fine. An early work. Why have you never shown it before?” “The family did not like it, and I was so disappointed. I felt I never wanted to see it again. I did it so carefully and you may be sure it was like her — but — no one cared for it,” she added sadly. “Well, I care for it,” I said hotly, “and so will others if they know anything,” and I insisted that it should be shown.
I was quite right. It was the sensation of the exhibition in the Rue Laffitte last June. With the result, as I have said, that both the Luxembourg and the Petit Palais were anxious to have it. But through the kindness of Miss Cassatt it is your privilege to see it here to-day.
Source: Knoedler and Company Exhibition Catalogs, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City