Sunday, May 11, 2014

Left Banke -- "Pretty Ballerina" (1967)

Just close your eyes
And she'll be there

Earlier this week, I attended the press preview of the National Gallery of Art's Degas/Cassatt exhibition, which opens to the public today. 

I recently wrote several posts about the American Cool exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, which is only six blocks north of the National Gallery of Art. 

American Cool, which consists of photographic portraits of 100 American pop-culture icons, is a real crowd pleaser.  But I wouldn't say I learned anything from it.

Washington's National Gallery of Art
Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt are very popular artists -- Degas's paintings of ballet dancers and Cassatt's portraits of mothers and children are familiar to even the most casual fans of fine art -- and the National Gallery could have used its extensive holdings of both artists' works to mount an exhibition that would have drawn big crowds.  But Degas/Cassatt is intended first and foremost to teach.

Degas in 1895 (aged 61)
Cassatt moved to Paris in 1874, and met Degas three years later.  (She was 33, he was ten years older.)  They were not only friends, but also artistic collaborators. 

Each collected the other's works -- Degas owned almost a hundred of Cassatt's paintings and prints -- and Cassatt even modeled for Degas on occasion.

Here's his "Two Studies of Mary Cassatt at the Louvre" (1879):

Neither artist ever married, and many have speculated that they were lovers.  But there is no real evidence that their relationship was anything other than platonic. 

As Kimberly Jones, the National Gallery's associate curator of French paintings wrote in her introduction to the exhibition catalog:

Neither artist appears to have indulged in romantic dalliances; instead they apparently devoted all their time and energy toward their art.  Indeed, this unwavering dedication to their craft is one of the traits that the two had in common.

In other words, if you're picturing Leonardo DiCaprio and Scarlett Johansson in 19th-century costume, dropping their paintbrushes and frantically groping each other in a beautifully lit artist's atelier, that's almost certainly not the way it really happened.

The centerpiece of Degas/Cassatt is Cassatt's Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, which was one of the paintings she showed in the famous 1879 Impressionist exhibition in Paris:

The National Gallery exhibition and the catalog that accompanies it thoroughly explain what modern-day technical analysis tells us about the history of this striking work of art.

While the painting clearly belongs to Cassatt, we now know that Degas not only suggested revisions to the geometry of the painting, but also picked up a brush and painted on Cassatt's canvas.
I've been a fan of Cassatt's Children Playing on the Beach, which is part of the National Gallery of Art's permanent collection, ever since my twin daughters were born:

But I was not familiar with Little Girl in a Blue Armchair until this week.  I think it's notable for two reasons.  First, there's the little girl's pose, which is naturalistic almost to a fault -- surely no artist would intentionally pose a young girl in that way.  

Second, I was struck by the vibrant color and pattern of the upholstery in the painting, which covers all four pieces of furniture that we can see.  Another artist might have put a different fabric (or perhaps two different fabrics) on the two pieces in the background.  But I think Cassatt's repetitive use of the insistent blue upholstery -- something of a visual slap in the face -- was the absolutely correct artistic choice.

Click here to read the exhibition brochure.  

And click here if you'd like to purchase the exhibition catalog.  

You might be surprised to learn that there are at least two songs out there that mention Mary Cassatt.  First, there's "You Remind Me of Someone," by the Rainmakers, which contains this verse:

Did anybody ever tell you
That you look a little like Mary Cassatt?
A mother and a child
Arranged, estranged
A mere brush stroke apart

Then there's Joshua Radin's "These Photographs," which includes these lines:

You're Mary Cassatt
When people tell you you're not
You're like a child
All the while
I need you a lot

But the Left Banke's "Pretty Ballerina" seemed like a better choice to feature in this post.

For one thing, Degas is best known for his paintings of ballerinas.  In fact, more than half of his works depict dancers, including his "Rehearsal in the Studio" (c. 1878-79):

For another, the group is named after the Left Bank (or Rive Gauche), which is the area of Paris generally associated with artists.

Paris's Avenue de l'Opéra
Of course, the 1879 Impressionist exhibition that introduced Mary Cassatt to the world was held at 28 Avenue de l'Opéra, which is located on the Right Bank of Paris.  Go figure.

Here's "Pretty Ballerina":

Click below to order the song from Amazon:

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