Review by Elizabeth Ann Foster
Natasa Babic as ground-breaking American artist Mary Cassatt and André Herzegovitch as the renowned Edgar Degas presented a delightful biopic of their relationship and artistic travails set in late nineteenth century Paris. This was a time when the conservative traditional juries for the Salon Académie des Beaux-Arts struggled with accepting and presenting the oeuvre of emerging impressionist artists like Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Pierre-August Renoir, and Paul Cezanne. Facing the Salon’s rejections, Impressionists or “Independents” presented their own series of exhibitions beginning in 1874.
An American woman living independently in Paris to pursue her craft, Cassatt befriends and collaborates with Degas. Both appeared content with their unmarried lives and the concomitant freedom to express and explore their artistic goals. For Cassatt, the traditional expectations of a wife to cook, clean, and raise children would likely have ended or severely impeded her artistic ambitions. It is not known whether there was a romantic relationship between them although she makes some efforts to ignite his passion. No letters or other documentation survived to assess their relationship in this way, but it is unlikely they shared intimacy given their moral principles. Degas was also known within the artistic community for sexual abstinence. In addition to sharing artistic interests, both were fortunate to come from wealthy families, affording the means to fully explore their individual artistic and creative ideals.
Cassatt is an independent unmarried woman struggling in a male dominated 19th century Parisian art world and at the onset, voices her frustrations of living and working in a misogynistic culture. She notes her struggles with the conservative jury of the Académie that possessed the power to determine whether her works hung at the Salon.
Through Degas’ considerable influence in the art world Cassatt gained a wider audience by exhibiting her works with the Independents. A concession, but she did need to tolerate the sometimes chauvinistic and rude Degas. Cassatt was also a pioneer for women’s rights, supporting suffrage in America. When some of her family voiced opposition toward women voting, she sold paintings that would have been transferred to them at her death.
Writer and director Christopher Ward has blended actual quotes and instances from the Cassatt’s family’s recorded history to portray the Cassatt and Degas initial meeting and subsequent time spent together at Cassatt’s studio. It offers a glimpse of what may have occurred between the two. We know that Cassatt was proud of her French language skills and the first thing Degas insults are her efforts to converse with him in French. Degas was know for his condescension, “Art critic? Is that a profession?” He was a misogynist, anti-semite, and all around equal opportunity insulter. He once described landscape paintings of his fellow Independents as wallpaper.
How Cassatt endured him we can only guess in deference to their common artistic endeavors, but they did go their separate ways when Degas pulled out of a significant publishing project on which they collaborated. If we could vote, Cassatt is the clear victor here. It is time she steps out and is recognized for her courageous talent. Thank you Ward for breathing life, romance and intrigue into these masters.
The show plays through January 5. 2020. Tickets are $52 (regular price) and $72 (premium seating) and can be purchased online at www.ticketmaster.com/the-independents-ny-tickets/artist/2683466 or by calling 212-921-7862 or in person at the Theater Center box office, 210 West 50th Street (1627 Broadway) in Manhattan.