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Degas, Visit to a Museum

Edgar Degas, Visit to a Museum, c. 1879--90, oil on canvas, 91.8 x 68 cm / 36-1/8 x 26-3/4 inches (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy music) Male: Impressionism is so often painting of modern life, of activities that we engage in now. Female: Things that we do every day. We go to cafes. We go to performances. We sit in bars, we have a drink. We stroll down the boulevards. This is the stuff of modern life and the stuff of impressionist painting. Male: In fact, the painting that we're looking at is a painting that is about what we are doing right now, that is, looking at paintings. Female: (chuckles) Right. I almost feel as though I'm looking in a mirror when I look up at this painting. Male: In fact, we're in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, looking at Edgar Degas' Visit to a Museum. Female: We think that the painting shows Mary Cassatt, Degas' friend because Degas actually did a series of prints of Mary Cassatt in two different galleries in the Louvre. He also did another oil painting of this subject. He also did pastels, so it was clearly one that he really liked, but he did that with his subjects. Once he found a subject, like the races, or the ballet, or the nude, he would visit it time and time again and rework it. He clearly did that with this subject. Male: In fact, art historians think that perhaps the woman who's seated is Mary Cassatt's sister, Lydia. Female: Degas and Mary Cassatt were friends for 40 years and Degas actually was the one who suggested that Mary Cassatt exhibit with the impressionist group, which she did. She was the only American to do so. Male: They were really like-minded. It's interesting because Degas is often criticized as being a misogynist, somebody who has a very difficult time with women; but it's a more complex issue and it has to do also with class. Mary Cassatt had come from a very wealthy American family, and so in some ways, although she did not have the pedigree that Degas' family name had, they were on par. Female: The story is that Mary Cassatt saw a Degas in a shop window and pressed her nose against the window so that she could see it and take it in and really admired it; and that similarly Degas saw a painting by Mary Cassatt in 1874 and really admired it and saw her as a kindred spirit. Male: In fact, Degas is quoted saying to Mary Cassatt, "Most women paint as though they are " trimming hats. Not you." So they had this really close relationship. Cassatt is reported to have stepped in when models were not able to do exactly what Degas wanted them to do. Female: Degas took Mary Cassatt as his model for this subject of At the Museum because by doing so he was immediately taking a woman who was interested in looking at art and who had a really good eye, and a really intelligent eye. Male: Look at the pose that he's placed her in. Her head is cocked back. She is really assessing and there is a sense of the discerning here. Female: It's interesting, this balance of looking at printed material and looking at visual material that's on the walls of the gallery. That's something that we see around us if we just look around this gallery that we're in today. Male: This is a painting that's in some ways about the way we read the visual. It's a painting about seeing. The subject is somebody looking at art as we, the viewers in the museum, are looking at art, so there's this perfect replication. Female: But more than looking, Mary Cassett is standing, tilting, gesturing, moving. So is her companion, holding the book, looking up, tilting her head. I think that's precisely what Degas was interested in, the same way that he's interesting in gesture if we look at other subjects that he found compelling, like milliners, or ballet dancers; the way that they stand, the way that they move. I think there was something really interesting and modern to Degas about the way people move, and look at art, and gesture, and stand in an art museum. Male: Right. It's an expression of the modern world. It's interesting and, I think, instructive to think about what Degas has not focused on. He has not shown us what the specific works of art are that she is looking at. We can't even see the body or the dress all that clearly. The entire painting is beautifully brushy and it gives a sense of the momentary. Female: That's right. If anything is specific it's the gesture, it's the posture. I think that Degas is very much thinking about the kinds of questions that Baudelaire raised, putting away the rhetorical gestures of history painting, of images of ancient Greece and Rome that we think of when we think about salon paintings by Couture or Gerome or Bouguereau. For Degas' viewers, this must have looked ugly. These aren't the graceful gestures of painting condoned by the Royal Academy. These are really modern and, in some ways, ugly gestures; the way you might capture someone sitting on the subway. Male: All the paint is really quite muddy as well. The colors are muddy. The composition is also at odds with what academic painting would expect. They're looking to the upper right, but the painting's construction, the orthogonals, look, for instance, at the bench, the way the plane of the floor meets the plane of the wall, all of that rushes to the upper left, so they're in opposition to each other. There's this real sense of movement and energy in the painting that's created by this compositional opposition that he's constructed, but it is so much at odds with the way that an academic painting would be organized. Female: Right. In an academic painting we would likely see what they were looking at and we would see their expressions and there would be some narrative to be constructed out of that, but that's not what interested Degas. (jazzy music)