Beware of art teachers who approve of their students’ work only when it resembles their own. Near the end of his life, the painter Lucian Freud recalled that when the sculptor Henry Moore taught at the Slade School of Fine Art, Moore would inspect the students’ sculptures, looking for signs of his own influence. At the time, Moore was the most famous and distinguished artist in England. According to Freud, “every fifth or sixth sculpture, was a ‘Moore,’ and he said, ‘I like that! I see the point of that one!’ Which was nothing if not naive.”
What, then, are we to make of this painting by Mary Cassatt, which is so superb and, at the same time, so much like something Edgar Degas might have made that, after he died, Degas’s own executors mistook it for one of his? They were in a position to do so because Degas had acquired it in a swap with Cassatt after the eighth, and final, Impressionist exhibition, in 1886. He hung it in his private salon, and kept it all his life.
Did Degas choose it because he could think of it as a “Degas” — a flattering homage by a talented student?
It might look that way. But in reality, Cassatt was never Degas’s student. Three years before they met, upon seeing one of her paintings, he said, “There is someone who feels as I do,” which is subtly, but crucially, different from saying, “Ah, look! A Degas.”
Degas could be withering about artists who tried to emulate him. Suzanne Valadon once told him that Toulouse-Lautrec “dresses in your clothes,” to which Degas replied: “But adjusting them to his size.”
It’s clear from the record that Cassatt and Degas admired one another. (Their relationship was the subject of a brilliant show, “Degas/Cassatt,” at the National Gallery in 2014.) But I think it went deeper than that.
Degas acquired “Girl Arranging Her Hair” not, I think, because it reminded him of himself. He acquired it because of the astonishing feeling of freshness it gives off, the skill in the drawing (that right hand!), and the gorgeousness of the coloring. He saw straightaway its greatness, and was greedy to have it. (“If you are going to paint,” said Freud, “you’ve got to use any art you see as being there entirely for you, to help you. If you ‘admire’ it in that sense, I think maybe you’re gone.”)
Look at the set of the mouth of Cassatt’s girl, her squashed bottom lip, the oily sheen on her chin, the coloring in her cheek. She’s not falsely pretty. She’s real. Even as she reaches back to gather her hair and twist it into manageable form, she is acutely aware, conscious, noticing. She’s complex in ways we perceive in others only when we open ourselves, without prejudice, to their specific presence, their particular energy.
Before this painting came into the world, I don’t know whether any artist had managed to portray a young girl occupying such a narrow and fleeting slice of time so confidently and fully. Degas, evidently, was among the first to realize this.