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Cassatt later became the model for a series of Degas’ etchings and pastels in which he portrayed her browsing artworks in the Louvre. He would go on to amass nearly 100 of her works, including multiple versions of the same prints. Cassatt returned the favor, acting as a liaison of sorts between Degas and other impressionists and wealthy American collectors.
The National Gallery is a fitting venue for the show, boasting extensive holdings of both artists. “Little Girl in a Blue Armchair” was donated by Paul Mellon and demonstrates Cassatt’s powers of observation by showing a fidgety child with her sleeping dog in an adjacent chair. Beyond the strong colors and energetic brushwork, the work effectively evokes the innocence of childhood. But recent cleaning and technical analysis led by senior conservator Ann Hoeningswald showed just how much Degas influenced the outcome.
Cassatt originally intended to use a horizontal line to mark the edge of the floor in the scene and maintain a single back wall parallel to the picture plane, according to Jones. Degas injected bold perspective by introducing a diagonal to expand the space and create a sloping wall, she writes in an accompanying catalogue. The exhibit shows how forensic studies by the gallery staff revealed strokes of grayish brown paint not found elsewhere in the picture in the corner beyond the furniture. Degas also abraded the surface, as he did in many of his own paintings, but left it to Cassatt to make adjustments.
Imagery shows that she repositioned the armless couch in the center of the picture to align it with the new interior and also tried placing the dog on the floor before returning it to its cozy perch.
The detective work showed how the artists carried out a collaborative dialogue, Jones said, and puts to rest notions that the male artist was somehow stage-managing Cassatt’s career. “Degas is essentially is giving a friend advice and then leaves it to her to resolve the problem,” she said.
“Degas/Cassatt” can be seen through Oct. 5 at the National Gallery of Art’s West Building, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free.