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Mary Cassatt at the Louvre

DEX50

Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery, 1879–1880, softground etching, drypoint, aquatint, and etching, retouched with red chalk, The Art Institute of Chicago, Albert Roullier Memorial Collection. Photography © The Art Institute of Chicago

 

Degas’s own planned contribution for the failed journal Le Jour et la nuit was the etching now known as Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery. Cassatt once remarked that she posed for Degas “only once in a while when he finds the movement difficult and the model cannot seem to get his idea.” Yet the theme of Cassatt strolling through the Louvre clearly fascinated him, resulting in a rich body of work produced in a range of media over a number of years. Encompassing two prints, at least five drawings, a half-dozen pastels, and two paintings, the series marks one of Degas’s most intense and sustained meditations upon a single motif.

Shown from about the hips up, a woman whose pale face is deep in shadow stands with her back to us, wearing a black and gray dress and hat, in front of a colorful but loosely painted, indistinct background in this nearly square painting. She stands just to our right of center with her elbows bent, perhaps to clasp her hands in front of her. Her head is turned slightly towards us so we see the line of her forehead, nose, and chin almost in profile facing our left. Her auburn hair seems to be pulled up under a black hat that sits on the back of her head. Her high-necked, charcoal-gray vest-like bodice has a line of white at the neck, suggesting lace or an undershirt. The bodice covers a black shirt with ruffles that fall at least to her elbows, and the long dress drapes close along the contours of her legs. She looks to the far wall, which is painted with sketchy, visible brushstrokes in marigold orange, lemon-lime green, brown, black, and pale yellow to create the impression of paintings in gold frames. The artist signed the painting in dark red in the lower right corner: “Degas.”

Edgar Degas, Woman Viewed from Behind (Visit to a Museum), c. 1879-1885, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1985.64.11

Degas’s choice of the Louvre as the setting for this group of works spoke to the two friends’ mutual appreciation for art and its tradition. In the series, he depicted Cassatt as an elegantly dressed museum goer, wholly absorbed in her study of art. Nearby, a seated companion (usually identified as Cassatt’s sister Lydia) looks up from her guidebook. Cassatt, with her back turned fully to the viewer, balances against an umbrella in a pose that highlights the curve of her body and underscores her air of assurance. Although the precise relationship between the various works is not entirely certain, Degas most likely began with drawings and pastels of individual figures that served as references for the series as a whole. The more elaborate pastels and paintings of women visiting a museum culminate the series.