As Portraits Became Passe, These Artists Redefined 'face Value' (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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As Portraits Became Passé, These Artists Redefined 'Face Value'

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:10
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir, and this week, we're exploring the international side of our nation's capital with our annual "Global D.C." show. In just a bit, we'll investigate the world of global espionage with a CIA analyst who's writing thrillers inspired by his day job. But first, the story of two famous artists. One French, renowned for his depictions of ballerinas, the other American, acclaimed for her scenes of family life. A new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art explores the impassioned relationship between Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg takes us there.

MS. SUSAN STAMBERG

00:00:48
More than halfway through her novel about Degas and Cassatt, author Robin Oliveira writes, "her fingertips grazed his cheek as he kissed her. They sank into one another." Well, it's about time. They waited 188 pages. Fact, fiction, novelist Oliveira is a bit coy.

MS. ROBIN OLIVEIRA

00:01:12
Nobody knows what goes on in their neighbors' house, let alone what happened between two artists 130 years ago.

STAMBERG

00:01:18
And it was a powerful relationship. Tumultuous, full of passion, but physical?

OLIVEIRA

00:01:24
This is their romance in the sense that it, in many ways, is a romance of two like minds, who admired one another greatly. And who, I believe, completely relied on one another for artistic and emotional help. And their relationship is sort of an elevated, intellectual love affair that tied them to one another for the rest of their lives after they met.

STAMBERG

00:01:48
Still, in "I Always Loved You," the novelist imagines a kiss, but with no diaries or letters to consult for evidence, National Gallery curator Kimberly A. Jones, thinks platonic. A passionate aesthetic attraction.

MS. KIMBERLY A. JONES

00:02:04
That is certainly my belief. There is no indication that there was anything romantic between the two of them.

STAMBERG

00:02:09
Okay, time to give People magazine back to the dentist. What was the relationship between this American in Paris and a Frenchman 10 years her senior, known and respected then, mostly in artistic circles?

JONES

00:02:23
It was all about the art, and that kind of laser focus and 100 percent dedication to art that they really shared.

STAMBERG

00:02:29
They met in 1877. At 33, Cassatt was studying painting in Paris. At 43, Degas' work was on view around town.

JONES

00:02:39
He was already in her mind's eye. Even before she actually met him, she recounts how she had seen one of his pastels in a store front window, and she pressed her nose up against it and was just dazzled by what he was able to do. She knew his art and was thinking, this is the direction I should be going in. So, he really did change her path.

STAMBERG

00:02:59
Author Robin Oliveira, apart from the smooch, her novel is based on tons of research. She says before the Degas dazzle, Cassatt had been trying to master a more traditional approach.

OLIVEIRA

00:03:11
He helped her switch from the academic style of painting that she had been trying to learn, and that was sort of the standard across Paris. And encouraged her along, into the impressionist style. The impressionist brush stroke, the use of color and light, the subject matter changed.

STAMBERG

00:03:28
Neither Degas nor Cassatt liked the term impressionism. To them, it implied carelessness, haste. They called themselves independents and labored over their work, although it looks so fresh. A year after meeting Degas, Cassatt made a painting that was, for her, a real break in style. "Little Girl In a Blue Arm Chair" is full of Degas' influence. First of all, he brought the girl to Cassatt. She was the child of his friends. She sits with a hand behind her head and her legs spread apart.

OLIVEIRA

00:04:00
It's actually a very modern pose. It's a little girl, slumped down in a blue arm chair, in a very pretty dress.

JONES

00:04:08
She is reclining back in the chair...

STAMBERG

00:04:10
Curator Kimberly Jones.

JONES

00:04:11
...looking quite exhausted after probably a day of running around and playing.

STAMBERG

00:04:15
What you see in her face is exhaustion. What I see is could we get this over please? I'm so tired of sitting here.

JONES

00:04:23
This is definitely a very bored little girl. She's tired. This is not a dainty, prim, little proper girl.

STAMBERG

00:04:30
There are other big blue chairs and a sofa in the room, like bumper cars, Jones says. In the rear, left hand corner, a window may show Degas' direct influence. National Gallery Conservator Anne Hoenigswald was intrigued by a letter Cassatt sent to her art dealer.

MS. ANNE HOENIGSWALD

00:04:50
She says that Degas came into her studio, and actually worked on the painting.

STAMBERG

00:04:56
Hoenigswald used x-rays, infrared imaging, and magnification to study a diagonal, unusual in a Cassatt background, that builds across the canvas, from that rear corner window.

HOENIGSWALD

00:05:09
We looked at it and indeed, the strokes were a little bit different. They're these sharp, small, quick strokes that we weren't seeing anywhere else.

STAMBERG

00:05:19
Ta-dah. The brushwork of Degas, perhaps. And both conservator and curator say Cassatt influenced him. Degas has an unusual mixture of media in one picture. Pastels, oil and metallic paint. Cassatt used metallic paint on canvas first. Ordinarily, it was for decorating crafts. Curator Jones believes Degas saw Cassatt's metallics and decided to try it himself. They worked side by side, at times, went to exhibitions together. Degas drew and painted Cassatt often. A frequent image, Cassatt at the Louvre, painted from the rear. Big hat, smart jacket, long skirt, tiny waist. Her right hand and arm leaning on an umbrella, as if it were a walking stick.

JONES

00:06:11
And so you have this wonderful juxtaposition of the feminine curves of her body. The way he has her leaning really plays off the swell of her hips and, you know, her waist. But, you know, you have that powerful arm, and it's this perfect balance of elegance and strength.

STAMBERG

00:06:29
She looks, to me, extremely confident and rather judgmental. That is, she's looking at these paintings and she's thinking, that one's okay. Not so good. Okay.

JONES

00:06:41
Yeah, it's a very -- I mean, this is a woman, she is in control. Mary Cassatt owns that space.

STAMBERG

00:06:47
Degas worked that image of Cassatt in pencil, pastel, prints, paint. And at The National Gallery, the show runs there until early October, curator Kimberly Jones says Degas also captured Cassatt in the art he bought.

JONES

00:07:03
He owned more works by Cassatt than any other contemporary artist. More than Pizarro, Manet, Gogan.

STAMBERG

00:07:09
They remained friends all their lives, although they went their separate artistic ways in later years. Their interests and styles changed. Degas' eyesight failed. So did Cassatt's. But the intensity of their relationship, the early obsessions shaped each of them. In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg. NPR News.

SHEIR

00:07:34
We have images from Degas and Cassatt on our website, metroconnection.org. You can check out the exhibition at the National Gallery through October 5th.
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