Experimentation and the 1879 Impressionist Exhibition

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Mary Cassatt, Woman with a Fan, c. 1878/1879, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Chester Dale Collection

The period leading up to Cassatt’s debut in the fourth impressionist exhibition in 1879 was one of keen experimentation for both artists. They worked closely together during this time, often exploring new or unexpected materials, including distemper (pigment mixed with glue) and metallic paint. The most intriguing work to result from this artistic exchange was Little Girl in a Blue Armchair; with its loose brushwork and light palette, it is arguably Cassatt’s first true impressionist painting. Cassatt painted it in collaboration with Degas, a testament to the high degree of interaction between the two at this juncture.

 

The 1879 impressionist exhibition proved to be a watershed in both artists’ careers. Cassatt presented a dozen works, including Little Girl in a Blue Armchair and Woman with a Fan. Degas, who had helped organize the exhibition, listed twenty-five of his works in the 1879 catalog. Both artists made bold choices. Cassatt opted to display certain canvases in colored frames while Degas featured works in unusual formats, such as a group of painted fans that combined an appreciation for Japanese art with his preferred subject of the ballet. The two also submitted works in unconventional and mixed media. While some critics dismissed their experimentation, both artists were singled out favorably by other reviewers. For Cassatt, it was an auspicious start to her association with Degas and the impressionists.

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Edgar Degas, Fan Mount: Ballet Girls, 1879
, watercolor, silver, and gold on silk, Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art