Efa and Salva Rubio | Degas and Cassatt: A Solitary Dance (nbm)

96 pgs. color | $24.99 hardcover | Writer: Salva Rubio; A: Efa

The art world in 19th century Paris must have been a lively place, if the graphic novel Degas and Cassatt: A Solitary Dance by Salva Rubio and Efa (the pen name of the Spanish artist Ricard Fernandez) is any indication. The artists you’ve heard of (Ingres, Delacroix, Monet, Pissarro, Manet, and Renoir among them) and those you probably haven’t (such as Brandon, Levert, Rouart, and De Nittis) aren’t just busy painting: they’re engaged in a fierce battle to define what type of art best expresses the spirit of their age. In the process they form factions and put on exhibitions promoting their work, slag the work of everyone who’s not them, and still have plenty of time to drink, argue, and contract venereal diseases.

The most intense among them is Edgar Degas, a banker’s son who graduated from a well-known lycée (Louis-le-Grand, whose graduates include seven Nobel Laureates and a dizzying array of other eminences including Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, Roland Barthes, Eugène Delacroix, and Georges Méliès). Rather than study law, as was his father’s preference, Degas dedicates himself to painting with a positively religious fervor, vowing to give up everything else including romantic love and family life. And he seems to have done exactly that, in the process becoming one of the most successful artists of his era.

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The French art world of the time was a very male scene and casual misogyny was the order of the day. Degas was no exception, telling the accomplished painter Berthe Morisot “Woman is the desolation of the righteous man” and the equally accomplished Mary Cassatt “I’ve a hard time believing a woman could ever be so talented.” Hey dude, you just looked at her sketchbook, which told you what kind of talent she had, but don’t let that cause you to question your prejudices. Fortunately, Cassatt has dealt with pricks before and has a ready comeback: “Well, I can very easily believe that a man could be so pretentious and stupid!” Then they become friends, although apparently never romantic partners, and start spending a lot of time in each other’s company. Degas invites Cassatt into his artist’s circle, she poses for him, he teaches her pastels and engraving, she promotes his work and helps him make some sales. They were even planning to start a journal of prints together, but Degas pulled out of the project without explanation, leaving an exasperated Cassatt to remark that “once again, he had wasted everyone’s time.”

Their friendship comes to an end after Degas refuses to deliver a painting Cassatt sold for him two years prior and their discussion of the matter turns into a shouting match and exchange of insults. For what it’s worth, the Wikipedia acknowledges that Degas and Cassatt worked closely together for a few years and influenced each other’s art. Their artistic relationship served as the basis for the 2014 exhibit “Degas/Cassatt” at the National Gallery of Art, which confirmed that, as portrayed in this graphic novel, some brushstrokes on at least one Cassatt painting were actually made by Degas.

The most interesting aspect of Degas and Cassatt is the way it places the reader inside the 19th century French art world, recounting the struggles of different factions to gain supremacy and of the Impressionists to gain respect and validity for their way of seeing the world (the term “Impressionist” was first used satirically, in an 1874 review in Le Charivari). The psychological aspects of the story are less convincing, and Cassatt is clearly a secondary player in a story about Degas. I have no criticisms of Efa’s art, however: his illustrations look like pastel chalk drawings done in the impressionist style but naturalistic enough that the more famous artists are easily recognizable. He tends to favor small frames, so there’s a lot of them in this large-format (9”  x 12”)  volume, and sometimes he goes on flights of fancy, as in the spread when Degas realizes the key to making the kind of art he wants to make. And what is that key? “Painting men in the honesty of the true nature…At their labors, fulfilling their civic and domestic duties…With their actual features, bodies, unposed. Surprising their consciences in the nude, so to speak. This is the starting point for modern art.” | Sarah Boslaugh

You can see a preview of Degas and Cassat here. Just a note: the art includes full-frontal nudity, so it may not be suitable for all readers. On the other hand, this is a book about art and there’s certainly plenty of nudes on display in the average art museum, so make your own call on that one.  

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