Edgar Degas (1834-1917) Skip to Images
"Aspects of Degas's work - mainly, his ballet paintings from the 1880S - have long been popular with a broad audience; too much so for their own good. But he has never been a "popular" artist like the wholly inferior Auguste Renoir, whose Paris-Boston retrospective in 1985 beguiled the crowds and bored everyone else. Degas was much harder to take, with his spiny intelligence (never Renoir's problem), his puzzling mixtures of categories, his unconventional cropping and, above all, his "coldness" - that icy, precise objectivity which was one of the masks of his unrelenting power of aesthetic deliberation. Besides, the long continuities of his work have not always been obvious. The figure you think he skimmed from the street like a Kodak turns out to have been there already, in Ingres or Watteau or some half-forgotten seventeenth-century draftsman who suited his purposes. Degas was the most modern of artists, but his kind of modernity, which entailed a passionate working relationship with the remote as well as the recent past, hardly exists today. How we would have bored him, with our feeble jabber of postmodernist "appropriation"!
"In his late years Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas was chatting in his studio with one of his few friends and many admirers, English painter Walter Richard Sickert. They decided to visit a café. Young Sickert got ready to summon a fiacre, a horse-drawn cab. Degas objected. "Personally, I don't like cabs. You don't see anyone. That's why I love to ride on the omnibus-you can look at people. We were created to look at one another, weren't we?"
"No passing remark could take you closer to the heart of nineteenth-century Realism: the idea of the artist as an engine for looking, a being whose destiny was to study what Balzac, in a title that declared its rebellion from the theological order of Dante's Divine Comedy, called La Comédie Humaine.
"The idea that the goal of creative effort lay outside the field of allegory and moral precept was quite new in the 1860s when Degas was coming to maturity as a painter. The highest art was still history painting, in which France had reigned supreme; but since 1855 practically the whole generation of history painters on whom this elevation depended - Paul Delaroche, Ary Scheffer, Horace Vernet and, above all, Eugéne Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres - had died, and no one seemed fit to replace them. French critics and artists alike, and conservative ones in particular, felt a tremor of crisis, as others would a century later as the masters of modernism died off. After them, what could sustain the momentum of culture? "His presence among us was a guarantee, his life a safeguard," ran Ingres's obituary in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts in 1867.
"And yet beyond the ruins of the temple, something else was stirring: a sense of the century as unique in itself, full of what Charles Baudelaire called the "heroism of modern life." Its chief bearers, in painting, were to be Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas.
"Born in 1834 into a rich Franco-Italian banking family with branches in Paris, Naples and New Orleans, Degas was never short of money and never doubted his vocation as a painter, in which his family encouraged him. He was a shy, insecure, aloof young man - if one did not know this from the testimony of his friends, one would gather it from his early self-portraits, with their veiled look of mannerist inwardness acquired from Pontormo - and, it seems, unusually devoid of narcissism: unlike almost every nineteenth-century painter one has heard of, he gave up painting his own face at thirty-one. It was the Other that fascinated him: all faces except his own.
"In time he would construct a formidable "character" to mask his shyness: Degas the solitary, the feared aphorist, the Great Bear of Paris. He never married - "I would have been in mortal misery all my life for fear my wife might say, 'That's a pretty little thing,' after I had finished a picture." Certainly he was not homosexual. The more likely guess is that he was impotent. If so, all the luckier for art: his libido and curiosity were channeled through his eyes.
"He had a reputation for misogyny, mainly because he rejected the hypocrisy about formal beauty embedded in the depilated Salon nudes of Bouguereau and Cabanel - ideal wax with little rosy nipples. "Why do you paint women so ugly, Monsieur Degas?" some hostess unwisely asked him. "Parce que la femme en general est laide, madame, " growled the old terror: "Because, madam, women in general are ugly."
"This was a blague. To find Degas's true feelings about women, one should consult the pastels and oil paintings of nudes that he made, at the height of his powers, in the 1880s and 1890s. Some critics still find them "clinical," because they seem to be done from a point outside the model's awareness, as though she did not know he was there and were not, actually, posing. "I want to look through the keyhole," Degas said. The bathers were "like cats licking themselves." Their bodies are radiant, worked and reworked almost to a thick crust of pastel, mat and blooming with myriad strokes within their tough winding contours. But they are also mechanisms of flesh and bone, all joints, protuberances, hollows, neither "personalities" nor pinups. (One sees why Duchamp, inventor of the mechanical bride, adored and copied Degas.) Not even Nude Woman Having Her Hair Combed, 1886-88, the most refined and classical of these nudes, seems in the least Renoiresque, although nothing could be more consummately appealing than that pink, slightly blockish body against the gold couch and the regulating white planes of peignoir and apron. It was a subject to which Degas brought special, almost fetishistic feeling, and a later version of the same theme, The Coiffure, 1896, shows what a vehicle for innovation it could be: by now the contours of the woman and her maid are roughed out with an almost Fauvist abruptness, and they emerge from a continuous orange-russet field that seems to predict Matisse's Red Studio - in fact Matisse once owned this painting, although he bought it from Degas's studio sale in 1918, long after his Red Studio was finished.
"Looking back from old age, Degas reflected that "perhaps I have thought about women as animals too much," but he had not - although he was certainly reproached for doing so. His "keyhole" bathers provoked the crisis of the Ideal Nude, whose last great exponent had been the man Degas most revered, Ingres. Yet their exquisite clarity of profile could not have been achieved without Ingres's example. In them, the great synthesis between two approaches that, thirty years before, had been considered the opposed poles of French art - Ingres's classical line, Delacroix's Romantic color - is achieved. There is no clearer instance of the way in which true innovators, such as Degas, do not "destroy" the past (as the mythology of avant-gardism insisted): they amplify it.
"In their novel Manette Salomon (1867) the Goncourts had Coriolis, an artist, reflect on "the feeling, the intuition for the contemporary, for the scene that rubs shoulders with you, for the present in which you sense the trembling of your emotions.... There must be found a line that would precisely render life, embrace from close at hand the individual, the particular - a living, human, inward line - a drawing truer than all drawing."
"Degas thinly disguised, you would think. But at the time, the Goncourts did not know Degas; they would come to meet him later. Neither, strangely enough, did Degas meet his literary parallel, Gustave Flaubert, whose Madame Bovary had made its scandalous and prosecuted debut in 1856 - although he had certainly read him. Flaubert's objectivity, his impassioned belief in "scientific" description as the instrument of social fiction, his acute sensitivity to class, his sardonic humor - all find their counterpart in Degas. And so does his attitude to the past as source and example, the springboard for invention in the present. "There must be no more archaisms, clichés," Flaubert wrote about the difficulty of prose. "Contemporary ideas must be expressed using the appropriate crude terms; everything must be as clear as Voltaire, as abrim with substance as Montaigne ... and always streaming with color." Read Ingres and Delacroix for Voltaire and Montaigne, and you have Degas in a nutshell.
"Nothing escaped his prehensile eye for the texture of life and the myriad gestures that reveal class and work. He made art from things that no painter had fully used before: the way a discarded dress, still warm from the now naked body, keeps some of the shape of its wearer; the unconcern of a dancer scratching her back between practice sessions (The Dance Class, 1873-76); the tension in a relationship between a man and a woman (Sulking, 1875-76) or the undercurrent of violence and domination in an affair (Interior, sometimes known as The Rape, 1868--69); a laundress's yawn, the stoned heaviness of an absinthe drinker's posture before the dull green phosphorescence of her glass, the exact port of a dandy's cane, the scrawny professional absorption of the petits rats of the ballet corps, the look in a whore's eye as she sizes up her client, the revealing clutter on a writer's desk. Even when painting themes from the Bible or from ancient history, as he often did in his early years, there were, as Henri Loyrette points out in the catalogue, "contemporary concerns beneath a thin archaeological veneer." His Scene of War in the Middle Ages, 1863-5, whose erotically charged women victims prefigure his bathers, refer to the brutality inflicted on women in New Orleans (where all his maternal family lived) by Union troops in the Civil War.
"Degas did not suddenly "become" a Realist. That was a myth propagated by his friends in the Impressionist circle at Batignolles, especially Édouard Manet, who implicitly claimed the credit for his conversion. What happened was more subtle: gradually this quintessential young bourgeois discovered what was to be seen from the eyeline of the bourgeoisie, but he raised his theater of social observation on the foundations of strict academic training in the mold of Ingres, whose precision he never lost. His eye for the instant gesture and socially revealing incident went with a lifelong habit of recycling poses and motifs, patching them in. Thus he can be very deceptive: the image that seems the freshest product of observation turns out to have been used half a dozen times before. Degas copied everything from Mantegna to Moghul miniatures, and even the work of lesser painters than himself; an artist, he said, should not be allowed to draw so much as a radish from life without the constant habit of drawing from the old masters. (By the same token, he was an avid collector of both old and new art: in his sixties he purchased two Gauguins, and when pushing eighty he remarked with some admiration of Cubism that "it seems even more difficult than painting." Allegory, in his early work, went with the desire to see freshly - and it would return in strange forms in his old age, as in the painting of a fallen jockey whose horse is clearly one of the steeds of the Apocalypse, or Russian Dancers, three women in clumping boots, locked together in a straining mass like Goya's witches. Both are present in his first real masterpiece, done in 1858 after he got back to Paris: The Bellelli Family, that marvelously observed group portrait of his neurotic aunt Laura, her lazy and distracted husband, Gennaro, and their two daughters. For although it is a tour de force of Realist observation - how much more concrete and present the Bellellis seem to us, surrounded by the furniture and other stuff of their lives, than the people on the neutral brown grounds Manet borrowed from Velázquez! - it is also an allegory, of family continuity under stress: the drawing on the wall behind Laura Bellelli is of Degas's grandfather Hilaire, and she is pregnant, so that four generations, not two, are present in the picture. And you cannot fail to associate this with Degas's own working methods, the sense of filiation and descent that would breathe through his work for the rest of his life, the past feeding into the present and then out into the future. Degas, the synthesizer of Ingres and Delacroix, would point - through the wild color-fields and direct manual touch of his later years - to a modernism that was not yet born."
- From Robert Hughes, "Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists"