National Geographic : 1961 May
Great Masters of a Brave Era in Art "I used to go and flatten my nose against the window," she later wrote, "and absorb all I could of his art... I saw art then as I want ed to see it!" She became friends with the older painter and with others of the Impressionist group. After the usual buffeting from official juries, she decided to throw in her lot with them. "Now," she wrote, "I could work with ab solute independence without considering the opinion of a jury...I took leave of conven tional art. I began to live." Even Degas, who generally had a low opinion of the opposite sex, confessed private ly to a friend, "I would not have admitted that a woman could draw as well as that." Conscientious, ascetic, and with unattain able standards of perfection, Mary Cassatt, always in the shadow of her friends Renoir and Degas, waited until she was past 45 be fore having a one-man show. Meanwhile, out of her comfortable income, she bought can vases of fellow artists and persuaded her wealthy American friends to purchase their works. Several of the outstanding collections of French 19th-century art in America can be traced to her influence. Recognition at Home Comes Late She herself remained virtually unknown in America until after her death. When she visited Philadelphia in 1899 after having won important honors in Europe, a news item read: "Mary Cassatt, sister of Mr. Cassatt... returned from Europe yesterday. She has been studying painting.... She is the owner of the smallest Pekinese dog in the world." Since she rarely painted on commission, her subjects are generally unknown. It is only by a happy accident, for example, that we know when and where the canvas re produced on page 664 was painted. "As for my painting, 'The Boat,' " she wrote to her Paris dealer, "I do not want to sell it... it was painted at Antibes, twenty years ago, the year in which my niece came into the world, and... that makes it a souvenir." Although Mary Cassatt learned much from Degas, their points of view differed greatly. Degas saw in the ballet and horse racing brief moments of poetry in motion, threaded through with excitement and evanescent col or. There is rarely an interest in individual personality. Dancers and riders were to him artists like himself, highly trained and skilled to thrill a distant audience, performers whose personal life and passions were cloaked be hind the facade of professionalism. His paintings, which often appear to have been dashed off in the moment of inspiration, were in fact, like a dancer's pirouette, the result of long hours of study and preparation. Gauguin: Genius at Eccentricity Certainly our ideas about the artist in his relation to society were established in Paris during the 19th century. In previous cen turies the artist had been considered to be a craftsman, a scientist, a poet, or a business man, but in the 19th century he became an eccentric, and some of us still visualize a painter as a man with a beard and unkempt hair, who lives outside society in a garret. Eccentricity was, in fact, carefully cultivated by some of the major artists in Paris. If we had met Gauguin, for example, we would have encountered an athletic man with a half-grown beard and a huge felt hat decorated with sky-blue ribbons. Over his dirty yellow trousers he wore a blue smock with mother-of-pearl buttons. On his shoul der sat a gibbering monkey, and his wooden cane was carved with writhing naked bodies. During his early days as an artist, he shared a studio in Brittany with a Dutch baker turned painter. One room was con verted into a sort of pagan shrine dedicated to Gauguin's slightly incoherent philoso phies. Walls, ceilings, and windows were painted with bizarre designs, interlaced with framed mottoes. In a corner was a cupboard on which two portraits were painted, one of the Dutchman, the other of Gauguin. The one of Gauguin is now in the National Gal lery of Art (opposite). With a sardonic smile he holds the serpent of temptation like a cigarette. Over his head is a most undeserved halo. A few years earlier he had left his job in a stockbroker's office, abandoned his wife and PAUL GAUGUIN (1848-1903) Self-Portrait Eden's forbidden apples dangle invitingly beside Gauguin's haloed head; his hand holds the serpent of evil like a cigarette. He painted this satiricalpor trait on the cupboard door of his studio in Brittany. Later he quit civilization in quest of a primitive paradise.