Interpretive Resource

Introduction: Degas's Portrayal of Mary Cassatt

An introduction to Degas's goals and processes as a printmaker and a look at one of his most technically complex prints of his friend and fellow artist, Mary Cassatt.

Art Institute of Chicago. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism in The Art Institute of Chicago. Art Institute of Chicago, 2000, p. 73.

This image of the American artist Mary Cassatt with her sister at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, is one of Edgar Degas’ most technically complex prints. It evolved over the course of at least twenty states, two of which are shown here. Cassatt and Degas were close friends and associates, and both were inventive printmakers; their personal and professional ties may explain in part why Degas took his habitual perfectionism to a new level for this project.

Degas showed Cassatt here with her back turned, capturing her characteristically confident, distinguished, even challenging stance. She seems not to be intimidated by the great masterpieces before her, or by the elegant setting. Degas emphasized Cassatt’s upright posture by designing a composition with an unusually narrow, vertical format similar to that of Japanese "pillar" prints, which both artists greatly admired.

Degas worked carefully on every aspect of this image, using a variety of tools and techniques to achieve a balance of line and tone. Even in monochrome, he established vivid distinctions in texture between the parquet floor, the marble doorjamb, the womens’ silk dresses, the fabric-covered wall, the gilt frames, and the painted canvases. In 1885, six years after he made the first state of Mary Cassatt in the Painting Gallery of the Louvre, Degas felt compelled to modify it once more. It was not uncommon for him to explore the painterly potential of a black-and-white print by adding color, and in this instance he covered an impression (probably of an intermediary stage between the twelfth and thirteenth states) with pastel. Developing this image with ingenuity and skill, Degas demonstrated his thorough mastery of graphic media and created a tribute to a colleague who was most likely to appreciate the achievement.

Impressionism, urban life, women
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