At the start of World War I, Sacha Guitry(1) took it upon himself to film the great men and women of the French art and literary scene. He succeeded in filming Claude Monet(2) in his garden at Giverny, August Renoir(3) with his paintbrushes tied to his paralysed hands and Auguste Rodin(4) in his studio, amongst others. When he asked to turn his lense to Edgar Degas, however, Degas refused. Guitry thus decided to film him without his knowledge, a few seconds of footage capturing Degas leaving his house and walking along the footpath. Degas similarly disliked being photographed and there are few traces of him in this medium. Aside from some family photos there is an image taken by Carjat(5), a fairly mundane picture from his youth, and another taken by his brother in which Degas is older and his vision had weakened. Degas even refused to pose for the famous Nadar(6) in the studio which hosted the first Impressionist(7) exhibition. In painting, there exist some self-portraits, in one of which a young Degas poses, charcoal in hand, already prioritising line over colour. Degas was one of the first members of the Impressionist movement, created around Renoir, Cezanne(8), Sisley(9), Pissaro(10) and Monet. It was Monet’s painting “Impression, Sunrise” that triggered the irony of critique. The description of the new style as “impressionist” resulted in a title that was immediately claimed by the artists in an act of defiance. Degas himself wanted to call the group “The Intransigents”, a name which was said to be reflective of his character.
We know of Degas’ life: his birth to an upper middle class family in Paris; a family who had been part of the nobility from the 14th Century, who had fled France for Naples during the Revolution, who with the support of Prince Murat(11), the King of Naples, established themselves in the banking industry, and, who then returned to Paris. On his mother’s side, a branch of the family originating from Port-Au-Prince(12) had established themselves in New Orleans in the cotton trade. Degas, who had taken his name without its title, made the trip to Louisiana to meet his cousins in 1872. There, he painted one of his first major works, A Cotton Office in New Orleans, which was to be the first of Degas’ works purchased by a public collection, the Musée de Pau(13), where it can be found to this day.
Degas had abandoned the law studies his father wanted him to pursue with a view to entering into business in 1853. He enrolled instead in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts(14), having learned to draw at the Musée du Louvre, copying the works of the Italian and Flemish masters, charcoal in hand, as seen in his famous self-portrait. Degas revered Ingres(15), and when he met him followed his advice: “Draw lines, young man, many lines. It is in this way you will become a good artist” the older painter told him. Degas admired Delacroix(16), his urgency of line, sense of movement and bold use of colours, and would later make a trip to Tangiers(16), following in his footsteps. He also admired the work of Daumier(17) a painter prior to being a genius caricaturist, and would become one of the first to place Daumier in high esteem in his pictorial pantheon. He even borrowed from him the theme of the “laundress” that inspired one of Zola’s best novels.
Strangely, Degas was categorised as an Impressionist and was loyal to this movement having exhibited in seven of their eight exhibitions, despite having an aesthetic that differed completely to that of the others. As with Manet(17), who was from the same generation and of the same social background as him, he drew on the history of painting and admired the Grand Masters. Where Spain influenced Manet, Italy provided a reference point for Degas. In this, both demonstrated the mark of a great artist: the ability to invent something new based on those that came before.
Contrary to the Impressionists, Degas never painted outdoors, being not much interested by nature. He remained a studio painter, faithful to the use of chiaroscuro which gave his works such striking affect; as seen in his paintings of the Café Concerts and his interior scenes, such as the disturbing canvas named Interior, also known as The Rape, in which a young woman undresses herself in a halo of light, whilst in the corner standing before a closed door a man contemplates her, as though a predator. A masterpiece Overflowing with emotion, this painting inspired many artists including the American Edward Hopper(18), a great admirer of Degas who, without the means to purchase his works, collected his prints.
One sees a little of nature on the racecourse, but it serves as a background for the movement of the horses or the gentlemen in top hats that blend into a composition of learned alchemy.
For Degas, it was above all the upper middle class that drew his critical eye over others; the middle class, artists, writers, those from the worldly circles which he assiduously frequented, all while firing off little arrows of critique to the contentment of columnists. Of the famous painter Ernest Meissonier(19), a specialist in battle scenes associated with “L’art Pompier”, Degas was quoted as saying: “There is nothing to say, this isn’t even bad”.
Remaining single, Degas was a known figure in Paris and the Parisian art scene, notably of the Salon des Rouard, where Edouard Manet and Berthe Morisot(20) were part of the close-knit circle, as was Mallarme(20). He also visited Madame Strauss, the widow of Georges Bizet(21) and one of the “queens” of the Paris scene. It was here that he developed a fatherly relationship with Daniel Halevy(22), 36 years his junior, and to whom we owe one of the most authentic testimonies of the painter(23). This is the world of Marcel Proust(24) and of “The Search for Lost Time”(25).
It is perhaps a lost youth that must have kept open a secret wound and rendered him a misogynist. In the two themes that made him famous, the Dancers and the prostitutes, the easy women or simple unfortunates in search of customers on café terraces, a glass of absinthe in hand, Degas’ gaze is one of terrible cruelty. The author Huysmans(26), who lucidly described Degas, explains how he demonstrated a kind of social hatred of the world of the poor, of the women forced to undertake degrading work, of the prostitution that he reveals even amongst the dancers as they solicited high ranking patrons in order to dance at the Opera. If Zola(27), who admired Degas, wrote to him that he had used this model of women in the cafes for his novel, l’Assommoir, it was in the knowledge that Degas had no compassion for this world. When the Dreyfus Affair(28) erupted, the artistic and literary scene tore apart. Degas, with Renoir and Forain(29), was anti-Dreyfus(30) and Degas fell out with his friend, Daniel Halevy, before being reconciled in 1908, when Dreyfus was reinstated.
Dans un café, dit aussi L'Absinthe, Edgar Degas, 1876, Huile sur toile.
92 x 68, Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Although Degas achieved celebrity, his family was financially ruined by financial crises and risky investments, placing him in a materially precarious situation. In addition, Degas suffered progressive and incurable blindness and the “misfortune” of living to the age of 83!
Yes, the unusual Degas… his work speaks on his behalf. How can one compare painters who, in 30 or 40 years, changed the course of the history of art, buried the official schools and their historical and battle scenes, their codes and rules which had defined the preceding era, and opened the way for modern art which, stage by stage, via Fauvism and Cubism, led to abstraction?
Gauche: Femme sortant du bain, 1866, Degas, Collection particulière
Droite: Pierre Bonnard, Grand nu à la baignoire, 1924, Collection particulière
Degas would have known all of the events in this artistic upheaval. He was a man of the past, attached to the lessons of the great masters, and yet he was a precursor for modernism. The Nabis(31) were inspired by him, in particular Bonnard(32), for whom Degas’ strong influence is evident in his interior scenes where a woman clears a table, washes herself in a bath or tries on a hat. Each of these actions Bonnard observed in Degas’ work, even if his world is entirely different.
But from all these artists, Edgar Degas stands apart like a solitary planet. From his abundancy of work, today dispersed throughout the world and held by the most prestigious public and private collections, emerge some of the great masterpieces of art; his subject matter, composition, technique, images at once smooth and soft yet violent, pastels bursting with colours, his wax sculptures including one of a 14 year old girl that is the embodiment of the genius of Degas the Sculptor. And yet, from man who didn’t like to be photographed, we see him photographing his models. And in this as well, his talent, his unique eye evokes wonder. His photographs of female nudes are amongst the most beautiful works that he ever created.
All the critics who have written on Degas insist on the fact that he was above all impassioned by painting. Not only his own, practiced for as long as his vision allowed, but for those of others. He was a compulsive collector. When his financial situation allowed him, he bought paintings, drawings and etchings. He acquired works by Manet, at his estate sale, by Pissarro, Renoir, Daumier, paintings and pictures of which he possessed hundreds of pieces, as well as 40 odd works by Ingres (he was without doubt the primary private collector of his works). But also those of Delacroix and Japanese prints from the best artists of the Land of the Rising Sun.
One stands before a work by Degas as though before a mystery because one feels that despite his immense notoriety, his annexation by the stream of impressionists, none of that enables us to measure his place in a history rich in master painters. I am not going to attempt to give an explanation, that would be absolute vanity, but to find him a family in which I believe we can better distinguish him. I think that he is one of those artists who is constituted of a dislike of themselves. By this I do not mean in terms of doubting their talents or their artistic engagement, but for whom their characters and the viscidity of life brought forth a solitary critique which, quite simply, distanced them from life. Neither women, nor children, nor friends could bridge this distance.
I include in this family Michelangelo, who painted the Sistine Chapel and died sleeping in a dirty room, on a straw mattress on an iron bed, underneath which sat a chest filled with gold with enough to allow his nephews to purchase half of Tuscany. I include Rembrandt, who throughout his life, created incredible self-portraits that fill us with admiration but which are, if we think about it, a tragic tale of a slow descent towards death; each day the hair whiter, the face more wrinkled, the mouth more bitter. Like Degas, Rembrandt died in a state of semi-misery. I think of Goya, an artist between greatness and tragedy, and of his final days, exiled, like a man asleep for whom the frightening creatures of his dreams are lapping at his feet, announcing a Hell in which he does not even believe. And Van Gogh, the other painting fanatic who would die of it, with his brother dead one year prior to his birth and whose name he wore like a cross.
Edgar Degas is from this family. A genius much greater than the human form that housed it. One understands why he painted so few landscapes. What could nature do against this sense of the tragedy of life?
pour l'Alliance Française de Melbourne
Brush up your French with Degas & the impressionists
Talk - Impressionism: the birth of Modern Art by Florence Thiriot on Thu 26 May, 6.30pm