Tuesday, March 6, 2012

At the Museum with Mary Cassatt

Edgar Degas. French, 1834 - 1917. Mary Cassat at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery,1879-1880. Soft ground etching, etching, aquatint and drypoint printed in black on thin Japan paper. Gift of Selma Erving, class of 1927. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe.

The artists Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt shared a forty-year friendship, both emotionally turbulent and deeply sympathetic, that ended with Degas’ death in 1917.  Struck by Cassatt’s paintings, Degas was moved to invite her to exhibit with the Impressionists in 1877, making her the first American artist to become an established member of their group. 

Degas’ dynamic portraits of Mary Cassatt at the Louvre express the admiration he felt for her.  In Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery, Cassatt is caught in a moment of contemplation.  Degas shows us the vitality of her attention as she looks as the art: she appears forthright and mesmerized, demanding and elegant.  Unlike the woman to her left, who sits sideways on a bench and peers tentatively up at the sculpture from behind her book, Cassatt’s whole body is open to the art.  And, since the perspective of the print hides her face from us, it is her body that expresses her experience in this moment—the way, say, she leans against her umbrella but also seems to float just above the ground.

This print also reminds me of the experience of going to a museum and getting side-tracked by the other visitors in a crowded gallery.  Looking at people looking at art becomes part of the museum experience.  In Degas’ print, the viewer is the voyeur, watching Cassatt watching; we can’t know what she’s thinking while she looks at the sculpture, but her engagement becomes a model for our own. 

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