Paintings by Mary Cassatt: The Cup of Tea, In the Box, Lydia Leaning on Her Arms
In the seventh decade of the 1800s, Paris became the City of Light. A sense of progress accompanied the time like an ever-traveling current. Gas lamps gave way to incandescent bulbs that burned so brightly, lovers searched for darker shadows in which to embrace. The newly lit grand boulevards surrounding the Paris Opéra bustled with people and carriages. I strolled along the rue Laffitte one evening, a charming cobblestone street lined with stone-colored buildings—the center of Parisian art. One fine gallery after another vied for the attention of passersby, but my favorite belonged to Paul Durand-Ruel, a second-generation dealer known for collecting avant-garde paintings.
Les avant-gardes, the breakaway artists Durand-Ruel supported, openly defied the Salon, a juried exhibition that for centuries set standards and shaped careers. I, too, had set my sights on the Salon when I’d arrived by steamer from Philadelphia thirteen years prior. The jury had accepted one of my paintings when I was only twenty-four. I remember thinking, Surely my career will flourish.
The gallery’s large picture window sparkled in reflected streetlight, and I pressed my nose against the glass to peer at the paintings inside. Three pastel ballerinas glowed in a gilded frame on the far wall. Miniature dancers dressed in silk and tulle waited in the wings before a performance. As my rose-scented perfume gathered against the glass, I imagined the large bouquets they’d hold in their arms after the performance, taking their bows.
I don’t remember how long I stared at the painting. Only the thrill of color and light, and I felt a shift within—away from the Salon and its fickle approval of my paintings. And toward a new path lit by artists who longed for progress too. Not since I’d run my fingers over my first metal tubes of oil paint had I experienced this kind of certainty. I forgot about the years I’d watched students from Académie des Beaux-Arts, which barred women, advance beyond me. I didn’t think about my auditions to gain instruction from Académie professors during off-hours. Or how my ambitions had been dismissed by my father—even when the Salon exhibited my paintings.
The portrait of ballet dancers thrilled me. I hadn’t yet met the artist, but I whispered to myself while standing at that window. Je suis arrivée. In Edgar Degas’ work, I saw my future. I pledged to seek out as many of his paintings as I could.
I found Degas’ work in galleries and when I was very lucky, at a private residence. I came upon his self-portrait one afternoon, displayed next to a large oil portrait for sale, of a jockey and his horse. More movement, color, and surprising composition, but my eyes returned to the artist. I memorized and carried the angles of his face with me, secretly searching for him while going about my days in the city. If Degas were to cross my path, I’d recognize those dark, sad eyes and offer my hand. I came to know quite a few of his paintings during that time, but I did not meet him in the public places where artists mingle. The fates were trickier than that. ⚜️