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Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas: Friends or Lovers?

Living in Paris in 1874, Mary Cassatt established her studio with the intention of settling permanently in the city, and she began to submit her work on a regular basis to the Paris Salon. The early paintings show Mary's strict adherence to Realism, and bear witness to her professed admiration for the painters Courbet and Manet. Right from the beginning, she liked using subject matter drawn from contemporary life, rather than painting mythological or historical scenes. It was this quality of modernity, together with her directness of approach, that caused Edgar Degas to stop in front of one of Mary Cassatt's canvases on day in 1874 and exclaim, "It's true. There is someone who feels as I do."

For her part, Mary Cassatt had actually discovered Degas' paintings in the early 1870's in the windows of Durand-Ruel's gallery to which she had taken Louisine Elder, later Havemeyer, to buy a pastel. Not much is known about Mary Cassatt's relationship with Degas, as she burned all their correspondence before she died. However, it is generally assumed that the two were lovers, although nothing can be proved. What is certain is that the two painters had a close, if turbulent, relationship over a period of forty years that ended in Degas' death in 1917. Degas' difficult and cantankerous nature often lead to periods of estrangement that could only be ended when mutual friends brought the two together again. It must have taken all Mary's reserves of diplomacy to deal with Degas' sometimes cruel nature. As she said in 189:

"I have been half a dozen times on the point of asking Degas to come and see my work, but if he happens to be in the mood, he would demolish me so completely that I could never pick myself up in time to finish for the exhibition."

However, the two artists did manage to collaborate on a number of projects, including a journal that Degas planned to publish in 1879 to which Mary Cassatt and other artists of the time contribute prints, and Degas also painted in the background to The Blue Room. These ventures undoubtedly helped cement their friendship, as they were brought together constantly.

It was Degas who persuaded Mary Cassatt to join the Independents - the exhibiting body that had been founded by the Impressionists - and the artist later recalled the event when she said:

"It was at that moment that Degas persuaded me to send no more to the Salon and to exhibit with his friends in the group of Impressionists. I accepted with joy. At last I could work with complete independence without concerning myself with the eventual judgment of a jury. I already knew who were my true masters. I admired Manet, Courbet and Degas. I hated conventional art. I began to live."

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