Cassat and Degas: A Love Story?

i always loved you

I Always Loved You is Robin Oliveira’s wonderfully atmospheric story about Mary Cassatt’s early years in Paris, beginning in 1877 when Edgar Degas invited her to exhibit with the revolutionary group of French artists known as the Impressionists. Oliveira has done a fabulous job of capturing the place and times of these 19th century artists, including Degas, Morisot, Manet, Renoir Caillebotte and Pissaro.

Oliveira offers us lively and colorful scenes in Paris, from the studios of Montmartre to the salon scene along the Champs d’Elysée. I have photos of some of these scenes in an earlier post called Mary Cassatt’s Greater Journey, including her homes on avenues Trudaine and Marignan.

As the title suggests, this book imagines that there was more to the story of the friendship  between Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) and Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Degas and Cassatt were known to be very close friends and colleagues. It is absolutely true that Degas had an enormous influence on Cassatt’s art and life. But was there ever more? Oliveira imagines their story as a love story.

Edgar Degas Self-Portrait (1886)

Edgar Degas Self-Portrait (1886), pastel on paper

Mary Cassatt, Self-Portrait (1878),  gouche on paper 23x17in Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Mary Cassatt, Self-Portrait (1878), gouche on paper 23×17″ 
Metropolitan Museum of Art,

But wait. Wasn’t Degas the disagreeable painter of nude prostitutes, working class absinthe drinkers and the petit rats from the demi-monde of the Opéra? He had a bad reputation, if rumors are to be believed. Some have made him out to be celibate, impotent, a misogynist, or even a sex offender.

And wasn’t Cassatt a cloistered woman of high social standing, best known for her tender portraits of mothers and children?

What could these two possibly have in common? Despite their differences, there was something that bound the two together, and I believe it was their fanatic devotion to their art. They both worked brutally hard at their technique and admired that in each other. They loved capturing the color of flesh and preferred to paint indoors, unlike many of the other Impressionists. They were the most experimental of the Impressionists, spending a great deal of time working and re-working their prints.

Was there ever more than this professional bond? We will never know. Cassatt destroyed all of her letters with Degas before she died. Oliveira draws her own inferences from that big mysterious gap, but I’m not so sure. Can’t Cassatt’s extraordinary work speak for itself? Isn’t her true story – as far as we know it – enough? Isn’t it enough that Cassatt and Degas had an intense, complicated, or even tortured friendship? Why do we have to impose on her our desire for romance?

This story is different than the one about the love affair between Edith Wharton and Morton Fullerton that Jennie Fields wrote about in Age of Desire (2012). That imagined story was based on Edith Wharton own letters. Her late-in-life extramarital affair might have been a surprise to Wharton’s many fans and admirers, but it was undeniably true. And with it came the revelation that Edith Wharton had written her own erotica. Quelle surprise! 

The Cassatt-Degas question is similar to the one between Berthe Morisot and her brother-in-law Édouard Manet, whose story is also told in Oliveira’s book. There were rumors of a romance there too, and inferences to be drawn. Both Morisot and Manet left behind some remarkable paintings that give us a potential peek at their inner secrets. I’ve written about this in the past – you might want to check out this previous post, Berthe Morisot’s Interior.

So are there any clues in Degas and Cassatt’s work?

Degas made numerous drawings, prints, pastels and etchings of Cassatt in the years between 1879 and 1885. But there is not one nude, no sweet smiles or sultry stares. Mary Cassatt would never have subjected herself to that kind of exposure. All we have are inscrutable poses like this:

Edgar Degas, Portrait of Mary Cassatt (1880-1884).  Mary Stevenson Cassatt / Edgar Degas / Oil on canvas, c. 1880-1884 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation and the Regents' Major Acquisitions Fund, Smithsonian Institution.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt  by Edgar Degas, Oil on canvas, (1880-1884), National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Degas made a series of studies, drawings and prints of Mary and her sister Lydia at the Louvre, including this study of Mary’s silhouette:

Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, Edgar Degas, Study (1880)

Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, Edgar Degas, Study in pastel (1880), Philadephia Museum of Art

The second pose is flattering, and has an unmistakeable sense of Degas’ interested gaze, but it is a long way from suggesting that they were lovers.

And yet it nags us, if there was nothing improper, why would Cassatt destroy their letters? It is entirely within this mysterious gap that Oliveria’s book takes place.

The letter burning story does make for lovely opening and closing scenes in I Always Loved You. Cassatt is elderly and living with no one but her long-term housekeeper at her country home, the Chateau de Beaufresne, and she is reading the letters she and Degas wrote to each other.

But she had kept these letters, as he had kept hers, though what they had been thinking, she couldn’t imagine. Such recklessness. Private conversations should always remain private. Why should anyone know what they themselves had barely known?

At the very end of the book, Oliveria returns to this same scene and shows Cassatt sitting in the dim light next to the fire, nearly blind from cataracts, as she decides to destroy the letters.

Was it a crime to burn memory? She didn’t know. Memory is all we have, Degas had once said. Memory is what life is, in the end.

She would be ash herself, soon, like all the others. She thrust the letters one by one into the fire. . . .

The pages burned on and on. And in those flames the years evaporated, the things unsaid and foregone, the misunderstandings and misconceptions and subverted hopes, the things that would now never be said.

Did they or didn’t they? We’ll never know for sure. Oliveira’s book offers one possible interpretation. What’s yours?

Mary Cassatt at Chateau de Beaufresne, undated photo. Source:

Mary Cassatt at Chateau de Beaufresne, undated photo. Source:

Chateau de Beaufresne (2012 photo). Source:âteau_de_Beaufresne.JPG

Chateau de Beaufresne (2012 photo). Source:âteau_de_Beaufresne.JPG

If you’re a fan of Mary Cassatt and would like to see more photos of Chateau de Beaufresne and the family gravesite nearby in Mesnil-Théribus, go to I hope to get there myself on my next trip to Paris.

In the Conservatory with Madame Bartholomé

Albert Bartholomé, Dans la serre (1881), a portrait of his first wife Prospérie

Albert Bartholomé, Dans la serre (1881), a portrait of his first wife Prospérie. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, on loan to the Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity exhibit currently at the Art Institute of Chicago.

This painting, called Dans la Serre (In the Conservatory) is getting a lot of well-deserved attention in the Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity Exhibit currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago (June-September 22, 2013).

In spite of the snippy things the New York Times had to say about it (“wide miss” and “cloying”), in my experience, this painting draws some of the biggest crowds at the exhibit, from Paris to Chicago. Behind it lies a tragic but fascinating story.

Albert Bartholomé (1848-1928) painted this portrait of his first wife Prospérie de Fleury (the daughter of the Marquis de Fleury) in 1881. She posed in a fashionable  dress in the conservatory of their home, which was located at 8 rue Bayard in Paris.


The dress of Prospérie Bartholomé, Musée d'Orsay

The dress of Prospérie Bartholomé, Musée d’Orsay.




The painting is large and captivating, but when exhibited right next to the very dress that Propérie (“Périe”) wore while she posed, it’s a show stopper. The detailing of the dress is as remarkable as its petite size. Seriously, I think I could have worn that dress in sixth grade.




The setting of Dans Le Serre reflects the couple’s wealth and standing. The garden in the background reminds me of the beautiful gardens of the Musée Nissim de Camondo near Parc Monceau in Paris, another home of great wealth and history (a home I like to call the “Downton Abbey of Paris.”)

Backyard gardens of the Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris.

Backyard gardens of the Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris.

The Bartholomé home wasn’t in the fashionable Parc Monceau neighborhood, but it was located on an equally beautiful block in the “Golden Triangle” of the 8th arrondissement between the Seine and the Place de François 1er. This is what their block looked like back then:

Place François 1er before 1909, source: wikipedia.

Place François 1er before 1909, source: wikipedia.

Fontaine de la Place François 1er, Paris. Source: wikipedia

Fontaine de la Place François 1er, Paris. Source: wikipedia




And here is the Place de François de 1er now, including the beautiful fountain you might recognize from the opening montage in Midnight in ParisThe Google Map Street View will give you a good glimpse of the structure that stands at 8 rue Bayard today.






According to the Musée d’Orsay, the Bartholomés enjoyed hosting salons for their artistic circle of friends (including Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt and Jacques-Emile Blanche) with free-ranging intellectual discussions about music, painting and books.

Two years after he painted Périe’s portrait in Dans le Serre, Bartholomé drew a pastel portrait showing her reading on the couch in front of a bookshelf. Clearly, their home was full of books. Périe is dressed in another fashionable dress, this one with black ruffles and resembling some of the other fashions in the Impressionism and Fashion exhibit, particularly Manet’s Parisienne. She seems to be wearing the same gold bracelet that she did in Dans le Serre.

Albert Bartholomé, The Artist’s Wife, Reading, pastel and charcoal (1883), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection.

Two years later, Albert and Périe became the subject of a joint portrait by Edgar Degas, a painting started in 1885 called The Conversation. Once again, Périe’s outfit (in which her bustle resembles the tail plume of a turkey) seems to be the focus of the composition.

Edgar Degas, The Conversation (1885-1895), Yale University Art Gallery, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.

Edgar Degas, The Conversation (1885-1895), Yale University Art Gallery, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. Image: Yale Art Gallery e-catalogue.

Unfortunately, Prospérie was in poor health and would die in 1887, just two years after they posed for the Degas painting. Bartholomé was so overwhelmed with grief that he preserved the dress that Périe wore in the Dans le Serre. I’m not sure how it became the property of the Charles and André Bailly Gallery in Paris, but it was subsequently gifted to the Musée d’Orsay in 1991.

As if the Bartholomé story wasn’t sad enough, Périe’s death caused Albert to give up painting altogether. On the advice of his friend Edgar Degas, he took up sculpting instead. Maybe the highly physical act of molding large-scale plaster and bronze was more cathartic than painting with a brush.

His first sculpture was for his wife’s tomb in front of a church in Bouillant, France, near Crépy en Valois. Not only did Bartholomé express his own raw grief, he also captured his young wife’s likeness. She has the same delicately pointed nose that she does in the painting Dans la Serre.

Bartholomé sculpure on his first wife's tomb in Bouillant, France.

Bartholomé’s sculpture for his first wife’s tomb in Bouillant, France. Image:

From that point on, Bartholomé’s entire oeuvre consisted of grief sculptures. He is probably best known for his Monument aux Morts at the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris (1888-1889), which is heart wrenchingly sad.

Albert Bartholomé, Monuement aux Mortsu cimetière du Père Lachaise (1889-1899). Image: parismyope.blogspot. com.

Albert Bartholomé, Monuement aux Morts du cimetière du Père Lachaise (1889-1899). Image: parismyope.blogspot. com.

Despite Bartholomé’s deep and long-lasting grief, he did manage to remarry in 1901. I wish I knew the whole story, but all I can find is that his second wife Florence Letessier (18xx-1959) had been a model before their marriage, so presumably that’s how they met. Bartholomé would have been in his 50s at the time of his second marriage but Florence was much younger.

Bartholomé sculpted Florence in 1909, but it doesn’t look as though her youth and serenity captured his imagination as much as the memory of his first wife. Florence’s face looks full and healthy but her expression and posture are utterly bland.

Albert Bartholomé, Bust, Madame de Bartholomé, Née Florence Letessier, Second Spouse of the Artist (1909). Image:

Albert Bartholomé, Bust, Madame de Bartholomé, Née Florence Letessier, Second Spouse of the Artist (1909), Musée d’Orsay. Image:

Sometime after their marriage, Bartholomé and Florence moved to 1 rue Raffet in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, where he would have a sculpting studio right next door to their home. The home and studio are still standing, as you can see from Google Maps Street View. Today, the studio at 1 bis rue Raffet rents out separately from the apartment building next door.

On a side note, Bartholomé’s art studio on rue Raffet became part of a huge art controversy in the 1950s. Apparently, Degas allowed his good friend Bartholomé to make plaster casts of some of his sculptures for Bartholomé’s private collection, including a plaster cast of Little Dancer, Age 14. Florence inherited the plaster casts in upon Albert’s death in 1928, but they didn’t go on the art market until she was placed in an asylum in the 1950’s, creating a big controversy.

In any event, you shouldn’t miss the chance to go see Bartholomé’s portrait of his wife Périe in Dans le Serre at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity Exhibit. Just look into Périe’s eyes, and you can almost imagine their sad story. It’s anything but a wide miss.






The Painted Girls: Degas and the Dancers

painted girls

If you like historical art fiction, it doesn’t get much better than The Painted Girls, Cathy Buchanan’s new novel about the young ballerinas Degas used to paint and sculpt. Set in the seedy side streets of Belle Epoque Paris, this book tells the desperate story of three sisters who must find their way to survive in the dark world of the Paris demimonde.

The Painted Girls is based on the true story of the van Goethem sisters who danced at the Paris Opéra in the late 1870s and early 1880s. They lived on the slopes of Montmartre on rue de Douai, and after their father died, they had to scrounge for a living as best they could.

Although they were not classic beauties, the van Goethem sisters were talented enough to earn a place among the other novices, the “Petit-Rats” of the Paris ballet. But they still had to supplement their meager earnings with grueling jobs as laundry women or early morning bread makers. Soon, the younger sister Marie had a better opportunity.

The Paris Opéra

The Opéra Garnier

Inside the Opéra Garnier

Inside the Opéra Garnier

A regular at the opéra, Edgar Degas noticed skinny young Marie, the middle van Goethem sister, and asked her to model for him. She was honored to accept and relieved to earn extra money for the family. She was thrilled at the prospect of seeing her likeness at the Fifth and Sixth Impressionist Exhibits in 1880 and 1881.


Little Dancer Age 14, Wax sculpture by Edgar Degas.
NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, WASHINGTON, D.C., COLLECTION OF MR. AND MRS. PAUL MELLON. Bronze copies were made after Degas’ death, including the one at the Musé d’Orsay in Paris.

The modeling scenes are some of my favorites in the book. Degas’ studio on rue Fontaine was just around the corner from Marie’s home in the 9th arrondissement. It is in that studio, overflowing with canvases, paints and pastels, that Degas began the sketches for Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, as well as numerous charcoal and pastel sketches of young Marie.

Cathy Buchanan’s website contains images of all of the artwork mentioned in the book. You can click on an image and read a related quote from the book. It’s just wonderful.

But there’s so much more to The Painted Girls than pleasant little scenes in Degas’ art studio. In fact, there is very a dark side to the van Goethem sisters’ lives. The oldest sister Antoinette gets involved with a violent young man of the streets, and Marie is singled out by one of the wealthy older patrons of the Opéra known as abonnées. The reader knows exactly where Marie’s relationship with Monsiuer Lefebvre is heading, that such gifts and favors are never bestowed without a price.

The sisters’ fall from innocence is tragic but not utterly without hope. In one particularly moving scene, young Marie is in despair, and raises a timeless question:

I want to put my face in my hands, to howl, for me, for Antoinette, for all the women of Paris, for the burden of having what men desire, for the heaviness of knowing it is ours to give, that with our flesh we make our way in the world. For there is a cost. . . . Would they say there is no cost, not so long as a girl takes no more than what a man decides her flesh is worth?

Both sisters make troubling choices, and find themselves even more deeply involved in the demimonde of Paris. When Antoinette’s love interest is arrested and accused of murder, the sisters’ conflicting loyalties nearly tear them apart. Can their family repair the damage and find a way to survive the poor, dangerous streets of Paris, without having to trade what men desire?

It’s an excellent read, although some might find the story drags a little during the criminal trials of Antoinette’s love interest, which could have been condensed down to one trial instead of two. However, that minor flaw still shouldn’t discourage you from seeking out and thoroughly enjoying this otherwise riveting book.

And when you’re done with the book, go back and enjoy more Cathy Buchanan’s website where she has also posted photos from her Paris research trip. I couldn’t create a better literary tour myself!

The Read: The Painted Girls, Highly recommended.

The Paris Tour: Take the Palais Garnier tour, a must-see in Paris. You can make an  Unaccompanied Visit nearly every day, or an English Guided Tour available three days per week. If you’re really lucky, you might be able to catch a ballet performance. Check out their 2012-13 schedule here. Then follow up with a visit to the Musée d’Orsay, where you can see one of the copies of Young Dancer, Age Fourteen, as well as one of my favorites, The Ballet Class. If you have the time to stroll through lower Montmartre, catch the Métro line 2 to the Blanche stop or line 12 to the Pigalle stop and browse through the van Goetham sisters’ old neighborhood.

van Goetham Home: 35 rue de Douai

Degas studio: rue Pierre Fontaine

Degas home: 6 boulevard Clichy

The plaque at the last home of Degas, 6 boulevard Clichy, Paris

The plaque at the last home of Degas, 6 boulevard Clichy, Paris


The last home of Edgard Degas from 1912-1917.