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Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt: drawn together

A detail of an Edgar Degas study of Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, a charcoal and pastel on gray wove paper.

Private collection, New York

A detail of an Edgar Degas study of Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, a charcoal and pastel on gray wove paper.

WASHINGTON — Edgar Degas first noticed Mary Cassatt’s work in 1874, before he had actually met her. Cassatt, who had not yet settled in Paris (she was about to) had sent a portrait — the head of a woman wearing a Spanish mantilla — to that year’s Salon.

Something about the confident drawing and the bravura brushwork, but most of all, one imagines, the odd, asymmetrical set of the woman’s mouth — it hinted at a slight disjuncture between interior life and social presentation, and at the possibility that something demonic might open up beneath the veneer of social appearances — got to Degas.

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He instantly recognized something. “There,” he said, “is someone who feels as I do.”

The pronouncement is often quoted, and it’s easy to see why: It was the opening salvo in a celebrated relationship. But it throws up a tantalizing question. For what sort of person really felt as Degas did?

This was a man who, in his own words, didn’t “have much affection” and wanted “to finish his life and die all alone, with no happiness whatever.” But it was also, of course, a brilliant artist who, in the words of the collector Louisine Havemeyer, was “supremely conscious of his own worth,” a man with a “caustic wit which frequently burned deep and hurt hard.”

Did Cassatt feel she could relate to Degas when she actually met him, three years later? Evidently she did. They became mutual supporters and lifelong friends — to the extent, anyway, that one could be a friend to Degas. (“Oh, my dear, he is dreadful!” replied Cassatt when Havemeyer asked what he was like. “He dissolves your willpower.”)

The two artists are the subject of a taut and revealing show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. In a handful of stately but intimate rooms, the exhibition conveys a stirring sense of two searchers pursuing a shared calling in a spirit of mutual respect and admiration.

That’s putting it pleasantly, and not untruthfully. But, just as beneath the surface of Cassatt’s early portrait a secret disturbance can be felt, so too a kind of private riptide of inchoate feeling tugs below the public surface of this famous friendship.

Organized by Kimberly A. Jones, the show includes a number of loans from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and an essay in the catalog coauthored by the MFA’s curators of American art, Elliot Bostwick Davis and Erica Hirshler. Overall, it tries to demonstrate that, far from being Degas’s pupil, Cassatt was a respected colleague whose honest criticism, loyalty, and thick skin he treasured as much as her admiration.

The case is well made. But of course, there is more to it, if only because Cassatt was that rare thing — a woman with whom Degas could truly identify.

Among other things, the show reminds us that both artists were great experimenters. Every work in the show throws up intriguing issues of composition (fantastic audacities abound in this area alone), medium, and technique. Both artists backed up their experiments, too, with unusual fastidiousness — almost like physicists going over their calculations again and again until the weird-looking math somehow proves itself.

But the show is not just about the pyrotechnics of pictorial experiment. It’s about a relationship — one that was particularly close around 1879-80, but which lasted until Degas’s death in 1917. Cassatt championed Degas tirelessly with American collectors, and arranged for Degas’s niece to move in with him to help him through his final, indigent years.

The list of artists who tried to ride Degas’s coattails is long, his contempt for their efforts well-documented. When the artist Suzanne Valadon said to Degas that Toulouse-Lautrec “dresses in your clothes” — that is, he tried to be too much like Degas — Degas replied: “But adjusting them to his size.” (Lautrec, of course, was short, but Degas had in mind his stature as an artist.)

Similarly, when the inferior painter Henri Michel-Levy sold a work Degas had given him in an exchange, Degas was typically withering: “You have done a despicable thing,” he wrote, “you knew very well I couldn’t sell your portrait.”

But with Cassatt, he plainly felt differently. He admired her — and then, perhaps, something more.

In many ways, their natural affinity comes as a surprise. He was chauvinistically French and (to tiptoe around a complicated subject) not renowned for his tendency to think of women as equals. She was American, and a woman.

And yet they were strikingly similar. Both were unmarried. Both had streaks of bigotry which hardened in old age (his anti-Semitism was matched by her fear of “the increase of the yellow races”). Each was formidably intelligent, very well educated, and utterly dedicated to art.

The same year they met, Degas invited Cassatt to participate with the breakaway Impressionist group. Cassatt accepted. She was the only American who ever exhibited with the Impressionists.

Both artists, mind you, hated being labeled “Impressionists”; they preferred “Independent.” And in this designation, Cassatt in particular saw a lifeline: When Havemeyer asked how she could possibly get on with Degas, Cassatt replied, “Oh, I am independent! I can live alone and I love to work.” (It made Degas “furious,” she went on, “that he could not find a chink in my armor.”)

The show is filled with great things by both artists. Among the stand-out pictures by Cassatt are “The Loge,” “Woman With a Fan,” “Girl Arranging Her Hair,” and “Little Girl in a Blue Armchair.”

Degas himself owned “Girl Arranging Her Hair” (among many other Cassatts). It pleased her that, when he died and his great collection was revealed to the world, it was initially mistaken for his (and still often is).

“Little Girl in a Blue Armchair” is displayed beside a letter written by Cassatt to the dealer Ambroise Vollard. In it, she explains that Degas had helped her with it. With a subtle touch — adding a corner to the room — he opened up the painting’s interior space, adding greatly to its depth and dynamism.

Degas’s best things — and they really are scintillating pictures — include “Mademoiselle Malo,” “Portrait After a Costume Ball (Portrait of Mme Dietz-Monnin),” “Henri Degas and His Niece Lucie Degas (The Artist’s Uncle and Cousin),” and “Woman in a Shallow Tub.”

If Degas’s pictures are consistently greater, there’s certainly no shame for Cassatt in admitting it. She was a first-rate artist, superior to most of her peers. But he was out on his own.

She knew how good he was, and used his example to spur her on — until, that is, she began to feel their association as a burden and made efforts to distance herself. An inevitable dynamic.

But was there something more to their relationship?

One room here — a kind of show within the show — is devoted to Degas’s famous depictions of Cassatt. In at least eight of these images, she is identifiable as herself. But he seems to have used her as a model for many more, too, and as Jones points out in the catalog, this “slippage in identity” — the confusion about whether he is specifically portraying Cassatt or pushing for anonymity — is part of their interest.

From about the mid-1860s on, Degas had been absorbed by the idea that people reveal a lot about themselves when unself-consciously listening to music, reading, or looking at art. At first, in mining this rich vein, he focused on facial expressions. But in the 1870s, he became more interested in his subjects’ body postures.

He concentrated especially on backs. His friend Edmond Duranty (a mouthpiece for Degas’s own ideas) wrote that “with a back we can discover a temperament, an age, a social position.” And so Degas’s most famous depictions of Cassatt show her from behind, looking at art in the Louvre. In image after image she is seen leaning on an umbrella with the sort of instinctive nonchalance that immediately indicates her high social standing.

Among this famous series of Cassatt in the Louvre is a striking print called “The Etruscan Gallery.”

It’s useful to know, before you see it, that Degas had incredibly charged and double-edged feelings about marriage. He genuinely believed that it was all but impossible to pursue a serious calling as an artist and be married at the same time, and he didn’t hesitate to express his contempt for fellow artists who had opted for marriage.

Yet at various times in his life Degas also yearned for conjugal happiness, and he envied those who had it. “Couldn’t I find a good little wife, simple and quiet, who understands my oddities of mind,” he confided in a diary as a young man. “Isn’t that a lovely dream?”

His strong, contradictory feelings about marriage poisoned some of his closest friendships. About his own choice to remain a bachelor, he explained: “I was too afraid that after I had finished a picture I would hear my wife say, ‘What you’ve done there is very pretty indeed.’ ”

Cassatt, of course, was one woman who would never have said such a thing. Her own refusal to marry was part of what impressed Degas about her. As he had said before he met her, “There is someone who feels as I do.”

The contributors to the NGA catalog have nothing to say about it, but surely it can’t be by accident that the Etruscan sarcophagus in front of which Cassatt stands in “The Etruscan Gallery” depicts a married couple?

It’s a famous object — one of only four sarcophagi like it in the world. Two are in the Louvre; two are in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. All four show, in high relief, a married couple embracing with loving tenderness — intimately connected, even in death.

What are we to imagine Cassatt thinking as she looks at this beautiful monument to love, this great sculpture which is also a stone-cold tomb? And what was Degas himself thinking — what “lovely dream” was he indulging — as he portrayed Cassatt in this moment of unself-conscious contemplation?

We can only wonder.

“The most beautiful things in art,” Degas once said, “come from renunciation.”

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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