Halftime Leisure

To Imitate and Deviate

August 28, 2014

Beyonce is revered as an idol. But, when paired with Jay Z, she transforms into a goddess. Together, the Carters become a dynamic duo, selling out concerts and creating an obsessive (bordering on scary) fan following. Their work not only as a couple but also as musicians demonstrates the power and benefits of artistic collaboration.

As exemplified in the Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt exhibit currently on display in the National Gallery of Art, genuine and successful collaboration is an amalgamation of imitation and deviation. Painters Degas and Cassatt developed a close, lifelong friendship rooted in their passion for art. In 1877, Frenchman Degas invited American painter Cassatt to contribute pieces to an impressionist exhibit. This first encounter led to a continuous friendship in which they encouraged and challenged each other throughout their artistic careers.

The similarities of their work became clear to me when I entered the first room of the exhibit. A display of his keen interest in ballet, Degas’ piece The 4 Dancers exemplifies his distinct style. Blurry, broad paint strokes form the green bushes that dot the landscape. In contrast to this undefined backdrop, dark straight strokes outline the four dancers in the foreground. The burnt orange hair and leotards jump off the canvas while their yellow floral skirts morph back into the landscape, creating a whimsical touch. In a similar style, Cassatt’s The Loge, hanging on the adjacent wall, combines both distinct and indefinite brush strokes. Cassatt employs wide, soft lines to depict the theater backdrop yet utilizes straighter, clearer lines for the heads and bodies of the two women in the painting.

The next room adds a new depth to the idea of collaboration, highlighting the important and deep connection Degas and Cassatt shared not only as artists, but more importantly as friends. Lining the three walls of the adjoining room is a series of sketches Degas completed of Cassatt as a visitor at the Louvre. The etchings depict Cassatt’s back as she wanders the museum, never fully revealing her identity, invoking an air of intimacy yet mystery between the artist and the subject.

Despite the portrayal of the similarities and friendship between Degas and Cassatt in its initial rooms, the exhibit ends on a much different note, illustrating the different paths the artists took towards the end of their careers. Cassatt’s A Woman Bathing, differs from her previous impressionist style works. In a style similar to that of Japanese prints, Cassatt uses clear, crisp lines and muted colors to depict the woman at the sink. Distancing himself from human subjects, Degas began to focus on landscapes, and his form became much more abstract, employing wide brushstrokes and simple color schemes, as depicted in this green and yellow landscape.

Degas and Cassatt, both self-declared realists and educated painters, demonstrated true collaboration, rooted in mutual support and encouragement as well as challenged each other to experiment with new materials and techniques. These two artists were willing to learn, share, and grow together, demonstrating that success is the delicate yet important balance of collaboration and courage to make ones work their own.

Photo: National Gallery of Art

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