Edgar Degas & Mary Cassatt:
In Love and Art—What Interferes?
by Dorothy Koppelman
I learned from Aesthetic Realism this great and revolutionary idea which gives both art and love a completeness, an entirety which has never been had: that the purpose of art and the purpose of love and marriage is the same: to like the world. And I learned from Eli Siegel in Aesthetic Realism lessons that two people in marriage need to learn from the technique of art how to put opposites together—the near and the distant, for instance, depth and surface, pride and humility.
I am going to discuss two artists, a man and a woman, who admired one another, affected one another very much, and who pained one another; they are the great French painter Edgar Degas and the American expatriate, Mary Cassatt. These two people, each with a fierce devotion to painting, to presenting the meaning of the world through what one can see and touch, were afraid of one another, afraid often to be within touching distance.
Edgar Degas lived from 1834 to 1917 and Mary Cassatt lived from 1844 to 1926; they met in 1875. He was 41 and she was 31. As a contemporary described them:
As I have thought about these two artists as people I have wanted to say: The world you wanted to like, to see and to show the beauty in, has now Aesthetic Realism, founded by Eli Siegel. He has explained the beauty in the world, and in you, and he has explained the cause of your pain. "There is," he stated, "a disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world." That disposition, contempt, limited the lives of two of the finest and most courageous artists of the last century as it interferes with the lives of men and women today.
Separately and together Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt added to the beauty of the world. But as to one another, that "magnetic field," that "attraction and repulsion" was, in fact, a continuing battle between a very deep desire to love and a strong desire to be aloof, to scorn, to have contempt.
In an Aesthetic Realism lesson I had in the early 1950s Mr. Siegel explained to me why I didn't want, as people put it, "to get involved," why I was afraid of being with people, afraid of being close to one person. Mr. Siegel said, "You think if you give other people full existence maybe you'll have less for yourself—that's what people think." My life, every day, is happy because Aesthetic Realism changed that way of thinking in me. I saw in him that greatness, unparalleled in history which came from giving full existence to people and to things, to everything he saw and read. I often saw Mr. Siegel show people they had depths and dimension they themselves were not aware of, because he saw that all of reality went into the being of a person, and that way of seeing is new in the world.
I am proud to be among those persons studying the great principle of Aesthetic Realism stated by Eli Siegel: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." And I love continuing that study in classes taught by Ellen Reiss, Chairman of Education, and to be able to teach this magnificent education.
Even as they respected one another as artists, Degas and Cassatt had the ethical malady that has afflicted people for centuries. They thought, as I had, that to be themselves they had to protect themselves from other people. Let us look first at Edgar Degas as he saw himself, at least fifteen years before he met Mary Cassatt.
Degas was impelled to study and compose on a surface the surly disdainful self, and the serious, deeply questioning person. As he studied his own face, he saw the opposites in his expression—disdain and a desire to know—and what he saw so deeply in himself he put courageously on the surface.
And as artist Degas wanted to see women with depth and warmth, and a feeling, too, of the possibilities of a woman which has made for some of the most affecting paintings there have ever been of the everyday lives of women—abstract form is seen in intimate gestures—in the milliner, the washerwoman, the dancer. The artist felt the more he wanted to know and think about, the more he was himself.
The desire to see, to know, the humility of art is what is necessary as two people are together. Often in Aesthetic Realism consultations a woman is asked, in order to see how a man, particularly a man with whom she is having difficulty, feels to himself, to write a monologue of that man, a soliloquy. We cannot feel scornfully superior and cold to a person after we have asked: How does he think to himself? What are his worries? What stirs him? What is he afraid of? What does he hope for in his life?—What are his criticisms of himself? And what might be his criticisms of me?
However, "love," Eli Siegel writes in "Love and Reality," "is a tremendous field for that agonizing interaction and simultaneity of superiority and inferiority common to contemporary human beings." And Aesthetic Realism shows that those opposites can be made one in our lives in the same way as they are made one in art. Here is a painting which puts together opposites that every man and woman have to put together in marriage: superiority and inferiority, high and low..
This is Degas' portrait of Mme. Rene de Gas, a cousin, who was also wife of his brother, whom Degas visited in New Orleans in 1872.
Here, Degas, the kind critic is at work. Person and space are joined through that wide, soft, silken grey-white skirt, ever so slightly different from, and slightly the same as the grey-white couch. Her upright posture, her neat, tight dark hair, her serenely folded hands all rise with pride from the wide, light backrest of the couch. As artist Degas is kind and deep for he made the world of the blind woman light, and he shows that although she is fixed, at rest with her folded hands, she is luminous, in motion as her wide skirt joins the horizontal couch, the boundaries of which we do not see.
Degas has done what every man and woman has to do for love to be true, uninterfered with—he has extended the horizon of the painting on either side and above and below; and so he has joined the non-seeing of one person with its sad limitation, to the mysterious feeling of knowing that the world, not yet seen or known by us is, nevertheless, present. There is more—above, below, on either side and inside—and that more is loved, because it has made for the tangible presence of opposites in a relative on a couch in her living room.
But Degas had two ways of mind, and two ways of seeing. As artist he studied the complexities of women; he had a critical eye and he showed in his paintings that loveliness and sharpness were both in a fact. But in ordinary life, he did not see women that way. Late in his life, he wrote, with scorn:
Eli Siegel taught me the difference between scorn for people, looking down from my "aristocratic" heights, and the true desire to see—to look up, down, and around. He told me what was most necessary for me: "It is," he said, "to be able to look down kindly." I learned that what goes on in the greatest art, that oneness of opposites pride and humility, high and low, is what every person wants to feel all the time.
Meanwhile, there are accounts of Degas' "withering scorn," his "dour and forbidding look," as Mary Cassatt later described it. This was the man who, in the Paris of 1875, with his two ways of being and seeing asked to be introduced to the young American painter Mary Cassatt because he admired her work so much.
The story of Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt is one of two people who had a desire to see freshly, and two people who were so hampered by their own sense of superiority they suffered greatly. On one hand both artists wanted to say what Mr. Siegel described as possible for two people to say to each other: "Through what you do and what you are and what you can do, I can come to be more I, more me, more myself; and I can see the immeasurable being of things more wonderfully of me, for me, and therefore sharply and magnificently kind and akin." But both people had a haughty contempt which went unopposed, uncriticized, and it made for sadness.
Mary Cassatt is described by the American art critic, her friend Forbes Watson:
Here in this self-portrait, look at the relation of the quiet, self-questioning eyes, the force of the resting elbow, and the motion of energy at one with repose in those hands—as well as the contrast so well handled of the flowered bonnet and the large, simple shape of the body. Opposites have been deeply seen and made one in this forthright painting of a self by itself.
Mary Cassatt, whose father was a Philadelphia banker, and whose brother became the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, wanted to study painting and left Philadelphia for two reasons: she was denied permission to study the nude in the avant-garde classes conducted by Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, and she defied her father's imperious denial of her desire to study art at all. She did however, obey her family's snobbism and for years because the Philadelphia family did not approve of the French, or of Degas, she kept him at arm's distance.
In this 1883 portrait of her mother, where the subject is, as it was in Degas' portrait of his cousin, as much meditation as it is the body and character of the sitter. A person seems more than herself because of the way the mirror reflects its shape, a hand, a mystery darkly within; and then mirror shapes and the white yet solid body join on the bottom left of the canvas so that inside and outside, depth and surface join on the surface of the painting.
Mary Cassatt is known and loved for her paintings, color woodcuts and lithographs of mothers and children. Every one of these works, learned from, can be a means of resolving the customary conflict between too much closeness and too much distance, the ricochet of doting then dismissing that goes on under the name of love in homes right now. These paintings are visual lessons in the necessary oneness of flesh and thought, body and its relations: as a mother holds a little foot, as a child caresses a mother's cheek, as both are painted in whatever intimate and sweetly sentimental times we see walls, towels, dresses, soft little arms and bodies enhanced by the glowing color and roundness of china cups, and the solid support of geometric and unsentimental walls.
Those eyes in the center of the painting are focused on a man we see as very large, and yet we don't see all of him. We must follow those eyes as they look at one another—and at the same time there are those surprising expansions. First, that large black form of a man is necessary for the completion in form, in the weight and mystery and security of the mother and child. His black arm, holding the yellow oar makes a firm triangle reaching their soft hands and arms with strength and certainty. The rowboat extends forward into the space beyond the canvas, the strong oar goes from the center straight out to the side, the water and the horizon spread peacefully beyond. The directions of a world in motion and at rest are right in the center of these three, in their hands, and we are transfixed and stirred at once!—secure and in motion in that boat—that is what we want in art, and in love.
Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas did not have the good fortune of hearing the criticism that might have shown them the message of their own work. This is a conversation between Cassatt and a Philadelphia friend Louisine Havemeyer.
Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt made the mistake people make now, thinking if they cared for one another more, they would be less themselves. As artists, they had a completely different purpose. Here is a painting of the milliner's shop in which Mary Cassatt posed for Degas.
She cared for this painting, and was proud of the way Degas used the mirror frame as a means of showing the mystery of woman.
This is a drawing, one of several Degas did, of Mary Cassatt at the Louvre. In the Phoebe Pool biographical work, there is this catalogue note about the two ways of being only Aesthetic Realism makes sense of:
Art never came out of such a sulky intention, and what we see here is art. The impersonal back has that pulsating quality, what is described as the nervous line of life. The relation of curved and straight lines in the tilted head make abstract form and the penetrating, concentrated look of a particular person simultaneous. The line that joins arm and umbrella is the line that separates and joins the body of Cassatt and the space on the upper right. Mary Cassatt's feet rest on a place unseen by us, but in that space the triangle begins that goes to the top of her head and down again. Up and down here are a visual resolution of the conflict of superiority and inferiority. The impersonal and warmly tender, lightness and weight, the unseen and seen are made one by Edgar Degas the artist as he looked at the painter Mary Cassatt. Perhaps that is why there are those lovely pink touches put by one artist close to the hands of another. If the eyes that saw this way, could have done so all the time, perhaps the blindness that afflicted both artists later in their lives might not have occurred.
As I read about the lives of these two people whose work has caused such great emotion in people for more than a hundred years now, I wished destiny could have had them hear what my dear husband and colleague, Chaim Koppelman and I, in this century had the inestimable good fortune to hear. When, in the 1950's, I felt cold and distant from my husband—sulky because I felt he cared more for his work than he did for me, and we both felt the other interfered with our plans as artists, we had Aesthetic Realism lessons. Mr. Siegel's words are ringingly clear: "See your marriage as belonging to art!—and Mr. Siegel asked me: Have you welcomed all the feelings Chaim Koppelman could cause in you?
I am grateful to say that I see Aesthetic Realism and Eli Siegel, each as a oneness personally and impersonally of art and love, and that Aesthetic Realism is teaching people now that the fear people have had of respecting one another, the fear men and women have had of scorn from one another, and the fear—so very wrong—that being close to another person will make them less, and the contempt solution which seems such an easy answer—all this can change completely. Aesthetic Realism is teaching people that the only way we can like ourselves is to respect and love and want to know the world outside ourselves, including a particular representative of that world.
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