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Mary Cassatt, "Woman bathing", 1890-1891, private collection © Courtesy Marc Rosen Fine Art and Adelson Galleries, New York

Whatever the truth of that particular matter, there is no doubt that Degas exercised a lasting and profound influence on her. They also seem to have been very good friends, which is surprising, considering what an odious human being Degas could be. He was unsparing in his bitter and often staggeringly insensitive criticism of other artists; his political views were those of an extreme reactionary — in particular, he seems to have been opposed to any measure that would give women social and political equality with men; and he was an anti-Semite of a very unpleasant kind, a supporter of the anti-Dreyfus cause, breaking with friends when he discovered they had Jewish ancestry, and asking his models if they were Jewish and dismissing them if they said they were.

Cassatt was somehow able to overlook those sides of Degas’ character. The only major breach between the two of them happened when he had enlisted her support in creating a new magazine which would showcase their etchings: she created a number of them specially for the magazine — and then Degas abruptly dropped the whole project. But the breach did not last long, and they supported each other until Degas died in 1917. Cassatt helped to establish Degas’ reputation in America: she was far better known in the US than he was until the 1920s.

Cassatt was certainly on the receiving end of some crass and exceptionally stupid sexist criticism (although not from Degas, who thought her one of the best artists of the 19th century). But it doesn’t seem to have had much effect, either on her or on her reputation. Most of the writing about her in the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th consisted in praise for her skill. Although her family’s wealth meant she was never in the position of needing to sell her art in order to avoid penury (as Monet and Van Gogh were), she wanted to be financially independent through success at her chosen profession, and she achieved that goal. She was taken up by the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who organised several one-woman shows for her, including two in Paris and two in New York. Her paintings sold well enough for her to be able to buy a large 17th-century chateau outside Paris with her earnings.

Mary Cassatt never married. Degas was her closest male friend, but there is no evidence that they were ever lovers. For each of them, their art was probably far more important than any personal relationship.

Cassatt was also well aware that if she married, she would almost certainly have to sacrifice her own career as an artist. She had seen what had happened to Marie Bracquemond, a painter who is now almost completely forgotten, but who was identified, along with Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, as one of the “three grande dames of Impressionism”. (Bracquemond first exhibited with the Impressionists in the same exhibition in 1879 as Cassatt.) Marie Bracquemond’s husband was also an artist: they had first met copying in the Louvre. But he turned out to be extremely hostile to his wife’s working: he wanted her to devote herself to him and to looking after their son. In 1890, when she was 50, she finally gave up struggling with her husband and stopped painting. If there was one thing of which Mary Cassatt seems to have been certain, it was that she would never allow herself to end up in Bracquemond’s position.
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May 30th, 2018
5:05 PM
All very true and informative. Our Royal Academy hasn`t invited Akiane Kramarik or Stella Vine (see websites) to exhibit yet. Akiane is showing in Australia and Stella at Alnwick Museum in January. Their work wipes the floor with that of the RA`s.

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