Published: March 4, 2003
By A.L. Dunnington
PHILADELPHIA, PENN., and NEW HAVEN, CONN. — Edgar Degas is well known and well loved for his delicate drawings, luminous paintings and incisive observations of modern Nineteenth Century Parisian life. But beyond the masterly draftsmanship, the use of shimmering, ethereal and sometimes shocking colors, the visceral literalness of his sculptures, Degas was a revolutionary artist who became a pioneering leader among the radical Impressionists roiling the art world with their iconoclastic works.
While Degas began his art education with traditional studies of the great masters, he achieved fame and critical success by vaulting beyond the academic, and experimenting with every aspect of this craft, from technique and perspective to subject matter and movement. He became not only an innovator in his own time, but a precursor to the modernists, laying groundwork for the likes of Picasso and Matisse.
Degas lovers can enjoy a double treat over the course of the next couple of months with two separate shows exploring his work and times: “Degas and the Dance,” a major 135-plus work exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that runs through May 11; and “Edgar Degas: Defining the Modernist Edge,” at Yale University Art Gallery that closes May 18. Both shows, although different in scope and intent, present stunning works accompanied by provocative scholarship.
A Brief History of Degas, the Artist and the Man
The first of five children, Edgar Degas was born in Paris on July 19, 1834, to cultured, upper bourgeois parents. Degas’s love of arts and music was fostered at home, and continued over a lifetime. He became a devotee of the Paris Opera and ballet, sometimes attending the same performance repeatedly, developing deep familiarity with what would become his signature subject matter.
But before establishing himself as a “painter of dancers,” Degas took an academic approach to his art education. After receiving his baccalaureate at Lycee Louis-le-Grand in Paris, he studied some of the great masterpieces as a copyist, receiving permission to copy works in the Drawings Collection at the Louvre, and the Print Collection at the Bibliotheque Nationale. In 1855, he was accepted at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts; from 1856 to 1859, he lived and traveled in Italy, where his art studies included particular attention to engraving, and the work of Rembrandt — both of which influences are apparent in his early “Self Portrait,” 1857, etching and drypoint.
Degas returned to France when he was in his mid-20s, and began his professional career, setting up a studio in Paris. He toiled in relative obscurity until, at age 30, his “Scene of War in the Middle Ages,” circa 1863-65, was accepted at the Salon of 1865, marking his first inclusion in the prestigious art show.
In July 1870, France declared war on Prussia. Degas, who had just turned 36, joined the National Guard. It was in the military that he learned his eyesight was failing, a slow progression toward blindness that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
More hardship followed: Degas’s father, who had supported his son’s career as an artist, died in 1874, leaving the family bankrupt. It was now imperative that Degas earn income by selling his works, and he did so through Paris dealers. When the first exhibition of Impressionist art opened in Paris that April, Degas submitted ten works, and received favorable mention for his scene at the race track, “The False Start,” circa 1869-72.
By 1877, Degas was producing monotypes and prints, and 23 of his paintings and pastels, along with three groups of his monotypes, were featured at the third Impressionist exhibition. At the fifth Impressionist exhibition, in 1881, Degas introduced “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” 1879-81, his first sculpture, in a collection that also included drawings, pastels, paintings and prints. Five years later, Paris dealer Paul Durand-Ruel organized an Impressionist exhibition in New York, the first in the United States. Twenty-three of Degas’s works, including “Jockeys,” circa 1882, were included. When Degas exhibited a set of ten large-scale nudes at the eighth Impressionist exhibition in Paris the following month, however, many were deemed “ugly” by critics.
Degas’s first solo show was held in 1892, when he was 58, showcasing landscape monotypes. Over the next several years, as his eyesight continued to deteriorate, Degas experimented with photography and sculpture. His second solo show was held at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, in 1911; the following year, art collector Mrs. H.O. Havemeyer acquired “Dancers at the Barre,” 1876-77, for 478,000 francs, marking the highest amount ever paid at auction for a living artist. When Degas died in 1917, at age 83, his career had spanned more than five decades, and left a lasting influence on the history and evolution of western art.
Degas and the Dance
“Degas and the Dance” is the first major exhibit to explore Degas’s intense fascination with the ballet, and the activities surrounding his beloved Paris Opera.
“It’s extraordinary to think of an artist as well-known as Degas, and realize that there was an aspect of his work not yet explored,” said Julia Brown, director, American Federation of Arts (AFA), who organized the exhibition. “People are familiar with his dance images but no exhibit had focused solely on that and explored it.”
The result, “Degas and the Dance,” was five years in the making, opening at the Detroit Institute of Arts in October 2002, before traveling to its only other venue, the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Created in 1909, AFA initiates and organizes traveling art exhibitions with the mission of making great works available to a wide public, and creating opportunities for new scholarship.
In the case of “Degas and the Dance,” Brown said, the AFA brought in Degas expert Richard Kendall, who collaborated on the catalog with Jill DeVonyar, an independent art historian and curator. Kendall and DeVonyar are currently in Paris, working on a film about the dance images of Degas and the world of Nineteenth Century ballet in Paris.
“Their work on exploring this aspect of Degas and the dance is new ground; they went straight to the source material,” Brown said, adding that the result is an invaluable look at an artist through the prism of one subject area: “You learn more not only about the works themselves, but about the artist as an individual, his involvement with the dance world and the opera, and the cultural life of Paris at that time.”
In the course of their research, Kendall and DeVonyar determined that Degas often depicted specific performances at the Paris opera, but was extremely selective in terms of what he chose to include. “He wasn’t just painting what was there,” said Kate Haw, AFA’s curator of exhibitions. “His intricate weaving of imagination and reality was more complicated than anyone thought.”
As Kendall and DeVonyar write in the catalog:
“However knowledgeable about the ballet or the Paris Opera [Degas] was, his pictorial engagement was neither passive nor merely documentary, just as his other preoccupations of the day — with the cabarets, cafes, laundries, hat shops, and brothels of the city — were marked by a radical reinvention of current visual modes. The more we learn about Degas’s familiarity with the Opera and its dancers, the more ruthlessly selective his vision appears to be.”
The exhibit includes period photos of dancers Degas knew; stage designs; works by other artists who influenced him — all presenting a broad context for understanding Degas’s life, times and work. “Degas and the Dance” also conveys the extent to which Nineteenth Century Parisians loved the ballet. Classic operas were often interrupted by divertissements, ballets that were simply inserted into a performance to please theatergoers, some of whom attended solely for the ballet segments.
The ballet and its dancers, in some respects, became to Paris audiences what movies and film stars are to audiences today: They had the aura of celebrity; they created a stir. The Paris Opera became a place to see and be seen, a place of both business and social currency, particularly for the abonnes — annual subscribers who represented the city’s elite, and were wealthy enough to secure seats or boxes, which were often passed on through families for decades. These subscriptions brought with them particular privileges, including backstage access, portrayed in Degas’s renderings of male figures in top hats and tails, lurking in the wings or darkened corridors. The opera events both enveloped and transcended the ballet dancers themselves — an experience Degas captured in his work partly through the use of unusual angles and cropping techniques.
“Their legs savagely cut by the edge of the stage, their coral and silver dresses suppressed by shadow or ablaze with light, the background figures in ‘Orchestra Musicians’ (circa 1870-71, oil on canvas), were among the very first dancers to be painted by Edgar Degas,” write Kendall and DeVonyar in the catalog. “It was a startling debut for an obscure thirty-five-year-old, one of a cluster of ballet scenes he began around 1870 that were soon to launch his career as ‘the painter of dancers.'”
The dancers often had male suitors who served as patrons. Stage mothers anxiously urged daughters into the ballet, sometimes in hopes they would catch the fancy of an abonne and land a good catch. But the work of the dancer was arduous and demanding, and Degas drew and painted his female dancers over and over, until he was intimately familiar with every move and gesture.
Despite what some critics have theorized, his was not a mere voyeuristic pursuit, Haw said: Degas sought to create a realistic picture of what life was like for the dancers. He captured the boredom, the competition, the pain — the unlovely daily grind of grit and discipline and endless repetition that led to the luminous loveliness on stage.
Of his obsessive attention to the detail of the real, Kendall and DeVonyar write:
“Degas’s critics frequently remarked on the ungainliness of the models in his ballet pictures, describing them as ‘bizarre and ugly rather than graceful,’ or as ‘skinny girls with uncertain shapes and repulsive features, whose movements lack harmony.’ Much of this resentment can be traced to the disparity between public image and private reality, between the dancers who Degas most often represented — those engaged in ‘bizarre and ugly’ classroom activities — and idealized notions of the ‘graceful’ ballerina. As in his other studies of the working women of Paris, from laundresses to prostitutes, Degas was evidently committed to making art for his fellow citizens out of the raw material that nourished their luxury and pleasure. At the Opera, this necessarily involved what Eunice Lipton has called the ‘demystification of the dance,’ a matter-of-fact engagement with long hours in class and rehearsal rooms, where youthful physiques were tuned for their fleeting roles in the footlights.”
What “Degas and the Dance” reveals, along with the beauty and delicacy and revolutionary nature of Degas’s work, is how his art developed, and how determined he was to capturing the essence of a moment, the truth behind appearances.
The show is organized thematically, around such subjects as dance practice; the rehearsal room; backstage life; scenes alluding to the performances themselves; and the separate dynamic taking place in the wings. Related materials are included in each section, so visitors can examine how Degas drew on both reality and his own imagination to develop his innovative vision.
Because Degas’s interest in ballet spanned a lifetime, the exhibit also follows the evolution of the artist’s style and range. In Degas’s later years, for instance, as his eyesight diminished, his works became more abstract, focusing more on the relationship between colors than on clarity of form.
“Degas and the Dance” also provides an opportunity to see works that are rarely shown together. This includes a large number of pastels, which, because of their fragility, are rarely released on loan. To see 15 or 20 pastels by Degas in one exhibit is unusual, Haw said, as is the sheer number of works by Degas gathered together on this one subject.
In the end, what Haw hopes visitors take away from “Degas and the Dance” is not only the insights gained by viewing the artist’s lifelong exploration of a single subject, but the plain and simple joy of experiencing the beauty of his work.
Defining the Modernist Edge
While the “Degas and the Dance” exhibition at PMA closely examines one subject pursued over a lifetime, “Degas: Defining the Modernist Edge” at Yale University Art Gallery represents the range of subjects, modes and materials Degas explored, said Jennifer Gross, the Seymour H. Knox Jr. curator of modern and contemporary art.
“We were looking to do a more intimate show, so that when you stand in the room, the circumference of Degas’s oeuvre and practice is at your fingertips,” she said of the 20-piece exhibit.
“Our varied Degas collection, the core of which is featured in this thought-provoking exhibition, reiterates and expands upon what continually intrigues viewers about Degas: that he was an unrelenting artist, working in oil, pastel, charcoal, sculpture and printmaking, who critically visited and revisited problems of form and process throughout his long career,” writes Jock Reynolds, Henry J. Heinz II Director, Yale University Art Gallery.
Comparing “The False Start,” circa 1869-72, oil on panel, with “Jockeys,” circa 1882, oil on artist’s board, painted a decade later, is a case in point. “Jockeys,” said Gross, uses unusual cropping techniques influenced by Degas’s interest in photography and the widespread use of binoculars at the races, which magnified and isolated particular scenes.
“The palette is very acidic and startling compared to earlier works,” said Gross, who organized the exhibition and edited the accompanying catalog. “The arresting colors complement the press of energy between the jockeys and the animals, while the sea foam green and pink sky increase that sense of compressed energy accentuating this fragment in time.”
By comparison, “The False Start,” painted a decade earlier, offers a more traditional perspective. Horse racing, imported from England, had become an upper class activity among Parisians of the mid-Nineteenth Century.
“An awareness of his English artistic predecessors…is apparent in several of these compositions, from the placing of the spectators’ stands to detailed incidents among horses and rides,” writes Yale assistant curator Susan D. Greenberg.
Similarly, in his paintings of ballet dancers, Gross said, “Often Degas is nestled down among the dancers. Rather than a literal representation of his subject, Degas offers a view of the world where this energy exists. By inviting us in, he makes us acutely aware of a world transformed, of the conflation of private and public life, where class boundaries are being questioned, and gender roles are broken down.”
In “Conversation,” circa 1884-95, oil on canvas, for instance, a woman is draped over an office desk. “She consumes most of the composition but we don’t know her relationship to the man at the desk,” Gross said. “Rather than a portrait, we experience her as an ambiguous representation of women in a public setting.”
Degas was interested in this new class culture and the breakdown of traditional boundaries in society and in art, often exploring both themes through his paintings of women going about their daily activities, be it ballerinas at practice or laundresses bathing.
Paris had attracted a whole new working class, and thousands of rural young people came to the city to seek their fortune, Gross said. Theirs was often a rough and tumble life, and Degas sought to capture the essence of it.
“Degas was different from most Impressionists — he was more experimental with the medium, questioning the artifice of art,” Gross said. In so doing, he pushed the boundaries of his art, taking the viewer to the right of center stage, for instance, showing dancers obscured by orchestra players.
Degas was not interested in abstraction per se, Gross said, but his subjects became vehicles for artistic exploration because he knew them so well. His experimentation contributed to a shift in “art making,” she said, which ultimately led to the modernism of Matisse and Picasso, where the immediacy of the creative process becomes part of the subject.
“Our hope is that by having brought together incredible works by Degas, there is something here everyone can connect with. Whether it is seeing his dancers as people — tired, bored, hardworking, dealing with the daily wear and tear of life — or nudes that represent the true, not idealized, female form, in all his works, we see Degas’s beautiful abilities as an artist.”
“Degas and the Dance” runs through May 11 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Benjamin Franklin Parkway and 26th Street, For information, including schedule of special events, call 215-763-8100 or visit www.philamuseum.org. Ticket prices are $20 for adults, $17 for seniors, students and youths 13-18; $10 for children aged 5-12; and free for children age 4 and younger. “Degas and the Dance,” a fully illustrated catalog published by the American Federation of the Arts and Harry N. Abrams, Inc (304 pages, 190 color plates, 125 black and white) is available through the PMA’s museum store for $49.95, hardcover; $35, paperback. “Edgar Degas: Defining the Modernist Edge,” runs through May 18, at the Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel Street (at York Street), New Haven. Admission is free. For information, 203-432-0600 or www.yale.edu/artgallery. A fully illustrated catalog published by Yale University Press is available in the museum store for $16.95.
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