France finally celebrates American Impressionist icon who made her life in Paris

The only American member of the Impressionist movement Mary Cassat -- who had a famously stormy friendship with the famous French painter Edgar Degas -- is finally getting the recognition she deserves in her adopted country.

France finally celebrates American Impressionist icon who made her life in Paris
Photo: Irina/Flickr
There is no known record of the American artist Mary Cassatt giving Edgar Degas a good slap.   
But in the half century the two were friends, there must have been times when she was tempted to take a swing at the French painter.
“I don't believe that a woman can draw that well,” Degas told her in 1892, taken aback by her painting “Young Women Gathering Fruit”.
On another occasion standing before one of her Japanese-style prints, he asked in disbelief, “Did you really do this?”
To top it all, Degas painted a “repulsive” portrait of his young friend — a picture that left her so furious she painted a riposte.
The sparky relationship between the pair is at the centre of the first major retrospective of Cassatt's work in Paris.
Although Cassatt is something of a national hero and female role model in her homeland, she is little known in France, the country where she spent most of her working life as the only American member of the Impressionist movement.
But the new show at the Musee Jacquemart-Andre in the French capital finally aims to put that right.
Curator Nancy Mowll Mathews said Cassatt and Degas were the oddest of couples — a feminist and the misogynist who somehow became friends for life.
“Degas could be awful, I mean really awful,” she told AFP. “He had no filter.
“Everybody had a falling out with him eventually. He said terrible things. He was a misanthrope, and could be really cruel.”
Photo: AFP
Wanting to be Michelangelo
Yet when the young Mary Cassatt defied her rich Pennsylvanian parents to decamp to France to become a painter, Degas invited her to join him, Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir and the other Impressionists.
Cassatt was fiercely ambitious, Mowll Mathews said. “She wanted to be the female Michelangelo… for her paintings to hang in museums with the great artists of the past.”
Such was her confidence that she deliberately chose homely models to grandstand her talent, she added.
While her women were not pretty, they were “tall and very strong and confident — this was the image that she wanted to project of women,” the curator said.
And when men patronised her, Cassatt loved proving them wrong — producing some of the best prints of the period when others claimed that Japanese woodblock prints could not be matched in the West.
When Degas painted a portrait of her that she found “repugnant and repulsive”, she took up her brush.
She rebuked him with a self-portrait that Mowll Mathews said “swiftly corrected him. In his she is stooped over, in hers she is upright and feminine and most important of all, she is painting…”
Sexual tension with Degas
The curator is still unsure what went on between them. “Is hard to say if there was sexual tension. They were both flirts.
“I think they were both quirky and shared a sense of humour, which was a humour of abuse in a way — particularly Degas because he would say very mean things particularly to and about women.”
Luckily, Cassatt — who became so financially successful from her painting that she was able to buy a chateau near Paris — was thick-skinned.
“She wasn't that sensitive,” Mowll Mathews said. “Their relationship worked because she thought he was funny, he thought he was funny and her family liked him. He was half-American after all and both his brothers married Americans.”
Photo: AFP   
After the last Impressionist exhibition in 1886, Cassatt went her own way and made the “mother and child painting her own”, said Mowll Mathews.
It was a daring choice for a woman who had turned her back on motherhood.
“People could not resist saying, 'Well she didn't have any children, she never married… tut, tut.'
“So for her to continue when her private life was being dissed like this, she had to have a lot of gumption.”    
The competition was also fierce from Paul Gauguin, Maurice Denis and many others.
“Most of the other mother and child specialists of the time, and they were many, have no great place in art history now, but she does,” Mowll Mathews said.
Beyond her own work, one of Cassatt's greatest legacies was as an evangelist for Impressionism in the US, where the movement had a more lasting impact on the public and collectors thanks to her than in France, said the show's co-curator Pierre Curie.
There she was a celebrity in her own lifetime, organising a show of work by herself, Degas and several Old Masters in New York to raise money for the suffragette movement.
“The message she was sending,” said Mowll Mathews, “was that in 1915 men and women were equal and both were the heirs of the great art of the past.”


Futuristic Gehry tower opens in World Heritage Arles

Rising high beyond an ancient Roman arena in Arles, a tall, twisted tower created by Frank Gehry shimmers in the sun, the latest futuristic addition to this southern French city known for its World Heritage sites.

Futuristic Gehry tower opens in World Heritage Arles
Gehry's Luma Tower opens in Arles, France. Photo: H I / Pixabay

The tower, which opens to the public on Saturday, is the flagship attraction of a new “creative campus” conceived by the Swiss Luma arts foundation that wants to offer artists a space to create, collaborate and showcase their work.

Gehry, the 92-year-old brain behind Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum and Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall, wrapped 11,000 stainless steel panels around his tower above a huge glass round base.

It will house contemporary art exhibitions, a library, and offices, while the Luma Arles campus as a whole will host conferences and live performances.

From a distance, the structure reflects the changing lights of this town that inspired Van Gogh, capturing the whiteness of the limestone Alpilles mountain range nearby which glows a fierce orange when the sun sets.

Mustapha Bouhayati, the head of Luma Arles, says the town is no stranger to
imposing monuments; its ancient Roman arena and theatre have long drawn the

The tower is just the latest addition, he says. “We’re building the heritage of tomorrow.”

Luma Arles spreads out over a huge former industrial wasteland.

Maja Hoffmann, a Swiss patron of the arts who created the foundation, says
the site took seven years to build and many more years to conceive.

Maja Hoffmann, founder and president of the Luma Foundation. Photo: Pascal GUYOT / AFP

Aside from the tower, Luma Arles also has exhibition and performance spaces in former industrial buildings, a phosphorescent skatepark created by South Korean artist Koo Jeong A and a sprawling public park conceived by Belgian landscape architect Bas Smets.

‘Arles chose me’

The wealthy great-granddaughter of a founder of Swiss drug giant Roche, Hoffmann has for years been involved in the world of contemporary art, like her grandmother before her.

A documentary producer and arts collector, she owns photos by Annie Leibovitz and Diane Arbus and says she hung out with Jean-Michel Basquiat in New York.

Her foundation’s stated aim is to promote artists and their work, with a special interest in environmental issues, human rights, education and culture.

She refuses to answer a question on how much the project in Arles cost. But as to why she chose the 53,000-strong town, Hoffmann responds: “I did not choose Arles, Arles chose me.”

She moved there as a baby when her father Luc Hoffmann, who co-founded WWF,
created a reserve to preserve the biodiversity of the Camargue, a region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Rhone river delta known for its pink flamingos.

The tower reflects that, with Camargue salt used as mural panels and the
delta’s algae as textile dye.

Hoffmann says she wants her project to attract more visitors in the winter, in a town where nearly a quarter of the population lives under the poverty line.

Some 190 people will be working at the Luma project over the summer, Bouhayati says, adding that Hoffman has created an “ecosystem for creation”.