There currently are two major shows on the main floor of the National Gallery of Art: the Degas / Cassatt show and the Wyeth show.
These are in adjacent galleries and share a common pair of doors. There is a rope across each door lest patrons wander from the Degas into the Wyeth and confuse the work of Wyeth with that of Degas and Cassatt or vice versa. This must have been a real concern because on my most recent visit, the rope was removed and the doors closed. This actually made each of the exhibitions more cohesive.
The Wyeth show includes groupings of paintings which beautifully illustrate the progress of a work. There are subtleties in the changes made. For example, in one group of three paintings, there is a piece of wire hanging from a bucket. Between the studies and the picture, the hook at the end of the wire is rotated slightly. The interesting thing is that although at first glance, the two finished works appear to be consecutive works, after careful study, it is obvious that the drawing immediately precedes the finished painting. The drawing was used to resolve issues that Wyeth had identified in the earlier painting. It is interesting to watch the progress of a work and how an artist makes changes to tune the images.
The Degas / Cassatt show is very different.
Degas has a sense of the moment lacking in Cassatt. Cassatt’s work shows part of a continuum that is the same before and the same after the time of the painting. She lacks that sense of the decisive moment present in Degas’s work. There is a beautiful turn in the torsos of Degas’s figures. Degas represents a point that marks a divide between the past and the present.
I felt that the Degas’ shown were selected in the interest of a cohesive show, as opposed to showing the best work. Degas’s paintings were downplayed to create a cohesion of quality with Cassatt’s lesser quality works. Cassatt’s prints were downplayed to create a cohesive show with Degas’s lesser quality prints.
It is often sad when artists are compared. The comparison often creates an unfair playing field. We all have different strengths. Comparing Degas with Cassatt as a draftsman is pointless; he wins without doubt. Comparing Cassatt with Degas as a printer is pointless; printing was Cassatt’s forte. Unfortunately the show does neither artist justice. It downplays Degas’ paintings to place him with Cassatt, and it downplays Cassatt’s print making in the interest of a cohesive show.
The two works below (both in the collection of the National Gallery, but not in this show), show the type of comparison that could have been possible: