Edgar Degas once proclaimed, “I would like to be illustrious and unknown.” It is a fate that the French painter, who died in 1917, has almost achieved. His distinctive signature, emblazoned on a T-shirt or a museum banner, is sufficient to trigger images of race courses and concert halls, of running horses and freshly bathed women.
And yet Degas, among the most private and curmudgeonly of artists, remains an enigmatic figure, one who has constantly thwarted public expectations. Traditionally characterized by art historians as one of the great radical innovators of 19th-century art, he saw himself as part of a tradition that went back to such Italian masters as Titian and Paolo Veronese. Popularly regarded as an Impressionist, Degas was openly scornful of those who went outdoors to paint.
“If I were the government,” he once told a Paris dealer, “I would have a special brigade of gendarmes to keep an eye on artists who paint landscapes from nature.”
Now, with the opening exhibition of Ottawa’s new National Gallery, the full measure of Degas’s richly varied achievement is on view. Degas, which runs until Aug. 28 before travelling to New York City, is the first major retrospective of the artist’s work in more than 50 years. The result of a collaboration between the National Gallery, France’s Réunion des musées nationaux and New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, it brings together 261 works, including oils and pastels, prints, photographs and bronzes cast posthumously from the wax sculptures that Degas obsessively worked and reworked in his later years.
The sensitively installed show, which is accompanied by a magisterial catalogue edited by former National Gallery director Jean Sutherland Boggs, is a rare opportunity to see the range of an artist whose work is dispersed throughout the world in public and private collections. In the exhibit, Degas seems to have reinvented himself several times—
always in an interesting way. Born in 1834 into a cultivated, middle-class Parisian banking family, Degas pursued the traditional route to artistic success. He entered the Ecole des beaux arts in Paris in 1855 and early on developed a reverence for the glacial, classical perfection of the French painter Jean Auguste
Ingres. After three years in Italy, Degas in 1861 returned to Paris where he attempted canvases whose historical or biblical themes were acceptable to the academic taste of the day. But he never fully entered the official art world of the Salon, in large part because he rarely finished his history paintings.
At the same time, he completed a series of perceptive family portraits that explored the relationship between generations. The last of them—of his aunt, the Duchessa di Montejasi, and her two daughters—is one of the revelations of the exhibit. The three women are wearing black, possibly in mourning, with the two daughters at the physical and psychological edge of the canvas. The effect is to focus attention on the penetrating portrait of the aunt, whose unforgettable face reflects both resignation and hard-won wisdom.
Degas painted the portrait in the mid-1870s, at a time when he had moved
away from the world of the Salon. Influenced by the realism of painter Gustave Courbet and novelist Emile Zola, and by the advice of his contemporary, Edouard Manet, Degas turned toward the painting of modern life. From concert halls, race tracks and laundries, he brought back the most acute visual observations.
He made paintings that set the viewer in the orchestra pit, that used startling angles and odd truncations. Degas seemed to admire jockeys, love singers and have a profound sympathy for women who had to work all day with steam and hot irons. With supreme artifice, he stopped the world of movement in pictures which, for all their verve and freshness, were never spontaneous. The exhibit offers two versions of The Dance Class, depicting an aging instructor confronting a frieze of white-clad ballerinas. Along with their luminous interiors, the two paintings offer different arrangements of the dancers that are anthologies of human gestures.
Degas was also a fanatical experimenter. He achieved brilliant results by removing the oil from oil paint with a blotter and thinning the pigment with turpentine. Applied to paper, the resulting mixture could achieve extraordinary transparency, as in the piercing midday
light of Racehorses Before the Stands. He was also a pioneer of the monotype, in which ink or pigment was applied to a metal plate and then pressed directly on wet paper. The murky blacks of the monotypes give a strange illicit tone to Degas’s caricature-like brothel scenes.
From 1874 to 1886, Degas helped to organize the exhibitions of the socalled independent artists, such as Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir.
It was at the first of those exhibitions that a critic mockingly coined the term Impressionism to describe what was perceived as the slapdash and unfinished look of works that were painted outdoors in an effort to catch fleeting atmospheric effects.
But Degas was a difficult man with a devastating wit —he easily held his own with his acquaintance Oscar Wilde—and he was constantly falling out with his colleagues. A portrait of Manet bears testimony to one of those quarrels. In 1869, Degas had painted a portrait of Manet and his wife. Manet, unhappy with the depiction of his wife, had repainted her. Enraged, Degas took the work back, cut out Manet’s overpainting and attached a piece of raw canvas, which he never got around to filling.
By the mid-1880s, Degas seemed to be at the height of his powers. And yet the artist, who never married, was often lonely and morbidly introspective. In 1884, he wrote to a younger artist: “If you were single, 50 years of age, you would know similar moments when a door shuts inside you. You suppress everything around you, and once all alone you finally kill yourself, out of disgust.”
By 1871, Degas was afflicted with myopic vision and a sensitivity to brightness, a problem that grew worse with age. He increasingly favored pastels, using layers of color to achieve the most sumptuous surfaces. He seemed to retreat to his studio, spending his days painting women bathing and drying themselves with almost fetishistic fascination. As he told Irish writer George Moore in the 1880s: “Hitherto the nude has always been represented in poses which presuppose an audience, but these women of mine are honest, simple folk, unconcerned by any other interests than
those involved in their physical condition. It is as if you looked through the keyhole.” Said art historian Boggs: “Some critics supported them, but others found them offensive partly because they showed people doing the intimate parts of their toilet.”
Among the late works there are startling exceptions to Degas’s nudes. Included in the exhibition are two small, glowing interiors, one of a billiard room and another of a guest room in a country house. Even more startling is Fallen Jockey, an atypical masterpiece painted in 1898. Degas had devoted considerable thought to capturing running horses in paintings and had studied French photographer Etienne Jules Marey’s famous photographs of galloping race horses. Yet the stiff-jointed animal in Fallen Jockey is all wrong, an escapee from a carousel. There is also something odd about the fallen rider who, although prone, seems about to float into the air. But despite the picture’s awkwardness— or perhaps because of it -—Fallen Jockey has a haunting, hallucinatory power.
Degas himself experimented with photography, producing portraits of friends that explored the qualities of artificial light. To the end, Degas remained irascible. As he wrote to a friend, artist Evariste de Valernes, he was hard on others and on himself,
“through a sort of passion for brutality which came from my uncertainty and my bad humor.” Problems with friends were compounded by his anti-Semitic views. In fact, Degas lost two Jewish friends, painter Camille Pissarro and writer Daniel Halévy, over the Dreyfus affair. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army, had been unjustly accused of treason by his superiors. The ensuing trials and scandal deeply divided the country. But Degas remained loyal to the army’s discredited position.
By 1912, his failing health and eyesight had prevented him from working. He remarked at the end of his life that the only funeral oration he wanted was a eulogy to be given by the French painter Jean-Louis Forain simply stating that Degas “greatly loved drawing.” And on the strength of the Ottawa retrospective, the eulogy might add that he also possessed a visual intelligence that was wholly original.
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