Monday, 23 October 2017

The Draftsman Degas

As I have mentioned a number of times across both of my blogs, there are a number of exhibitions, and museums, that I have been to that I simply haven't got around to writing about, and with the list of things that I could write about forever growing I feel that I'm not going to be struggling for topics any time soon (though I note that one of the things that I haven't been writing about is computers, but then again they were sort of a filler between other things, such as plays and exhibitions, which isn't really needed all that much any more). Anyway, after traveling halfway across the world to visit some of Europe's greatest museums I arrive back in Australia to discover that they have an exhibition on at the NGV of none other than another impressionist - Degas. A friend of mine who worked at the gallery pointed out that the reason that I didn't see any Degas in Paris was because they were all here, but honestly, I had never heard of Degas until this exhibition, and even then I was more frustrated at the lack of Renoir at the Musee D'Orsay than the lack of Degas.

So, Degas is basically an impressionist, and from what I gathered from the exhibition, he was probably one of the first (beating Manet to the punch). Like many of the impressionists that came after him, Degas was basically interested in painting the ordinary and the everyday, and also painting them in their 'natural habit'. He particular favourites were dancers and the horse racers, and the ever popular prostitute (though he was hardly the only impressionist painter that liked painting prostitutes, though for some reason I can't imagine being able to wander into a brothel these days and be allowed to paint anybody in there, particularly if you want to take some photos beforehand). However, unlike the other impressionists, who tended to paint out of doors (or en plein air as the French would put it), Degas preferred to paint indoors.

Okay, while the exhibition was entitled A New Vision, as is typical of me, I prefer to use my own title, and I was originally going to call it 'The First Impressionist', but I'm not entirely sure if he is actually the world's first impressionist painter. However, what did stand out with regards to his works was that, unlike the other impressionists, he preferred to use pastels, and also preferred drawing as opposed to painting. In fact much of the exhibition involved drawings he did of not just complete people, but of parts of the body such as the arm - no doubt practicing things such as capturing movement, and exploring the nature of the body. In a way Degas was more a draftsman than he was a painter, and with that in mind we will now dive in to the world, and art, of Edgar Degas.

The Early Days

Degas was born in Paris to a mix of nationalities - his mother was Creole (French-American) while his father was Italian. His father was somewhat an artist and a musician, and during his childhood spent his time mingling with the artists and the collectors of the upper echelons of French society. His mother died when he was a child, and he had two younger brothers and two younger sisters (which, obviously, makes him the eldest). As with a lot of children of the upper classes, he was enrolled into an exclusive school where his father expected him to pursue the study of law. However Degas was an artist, and much to his father's disappointment, ended up at the Ecole des Beaux Arts (the School of Fine Arts). Mind you, art isn't necessarily something you learn, it is something that you are born with, and one of the best ways to become an artist is basically to practice (it is, in my mind, the same with writing - it isn't something that can necessarily be taught, but you develop your writing skills by writing). As such he never completed his education.

Hilliar De Gas
One of the major subjects of his early years was his family, which honestly isn't all that surprising. However, after dropping out of school his father kindly funded a three year sojourn in Italy, which sounds very much like the modern gap year that many of our younger ones take between highschool and university, or even just after university. There was an academy in Rome where he could have spent his time, particularly since it was state sponsored, and those who succeeded here tended to go on to bigger and better things. However, instead Degas spent his time wandering the galleries practicing his style by copying the works of the great masters, which is something that I still see happen today - it is quite common to wander through a museum and see people sitting in front of a painting sketching it (where as I simply take a photo - though I am surprised that with the number of photos that I take nobody has thrown me out).

One story that is told is that his grandfather, Hilliar Degas, summoned the young Edgar to his villa in Naples where he was basically commission to paint a portrait of him. It is notable that his grandfather was actually a pretty wealthy individual, being a retired stockbroker and banker, who also loved art. Degas painted an image of him and his children based on Titian's painting of one of the popes, and it is interesting to note that even though Degas did copy a lot of the works that he saw down in Italy, he also added his own styles to it, creating something of his own unique work aspect.

Painting the Past

In around 1859 Degas returned to Paris where he continued to paint, this time spending his days in the Louvre (as many a budding artist seems to do these days - there were plenty of them sitting in front of their favourite paintings) once again copying the works of the old masters. As a side note I wonder whether one of those paintings happened to be the Mona Lisa because back in Degas' day nobody actually thought all that much about it - in fact it was basically just another painting among many, and not a particularly impressive one at that. However, when it was stolen around the turn of the century (or fin-de-siecle as the French say), people suddenly started to take notice, but then again I digress.

Anyway, he spent his time creating works of art that focused on history, namely stories from the Bible, Ancient Greece, and the medieval period. In a way this was simply going with the flow since the popular subjects of the time were either portraits, still lifes, or historical paintings. However the times were changing, and Degas was putting his own style into his works, and when one of his medieval works went on display at the Paris Salon, it was basically ignored. In a way this was probably the turning point in Degas' career when he realised that even though he was infusing his own personality into these works, in the end they were simply more of the same.

Yet let us consider his painting of some Spartan youths training. While this painting represents a scene from classical Greece, it differs from many of the paintings of this style in that it doesn't explore the extra-ordinary, or the mythical, but rather the ordinary. Here we have a collection of Spartan youths, being watched over by Lycurgus, the Spartan Lawgiver, as they train. However, there is also the suggestion that this is reflective of a Spartan mating ritual, where the males seek out worthy females so that they might be able to produce offspring worthy of the name Spartan. Sure, this might be historical, but instead of exploring the mythological, Degas is exploring the ordinary, the key theme that would develop throughout the impressionist movement.

Here we have another of the historical paintings, and similar to the previous one, this is also set in ancient Sparta, a subject that seemed popular with Degas. The interesting thing is that Sparta, unlike Athens, was not a centre or art and culture, but rather state that focused entirely on military prowess and creating the strongest, and most formidable army (despite the fact that two of the times when they had the opportunity to actually fight an invading army, they conveniently had a religious ceremony on). In a way, this is once again a focus on the ordinary, something that many of the painters of the day shunned. In a sense portraits were of popular, and noble, people, not of the ordinary worker, which why painting historical paintings of ordinary people as opposed to the myths and the legends was so confronting.

Meeting Manet

In 1862 Degas made a friend that was to have a serious impact upon his artistic journey - Eduard Manet. The thing with Manet was despite the fact that his paintings would regularly appear in the Paris Salon, he was one of those artists that would also flipped the birdie to the traditional styles of painting. Manet embraced a style that he called il faut etre de son temps, or to put it in rather vulgar English - get with the times dude. Manet knew that the artistic world was changing, and he wasn't going to be left behind, and it is clear that Degas also wanted to join him on this journey. It is this introduction that Degas found himself acquainted with the artists that were to be known as the impressionists - Renoir, Monet, Cezzane, et al.

Henri Rouart was another acquaintance of Degas', and an old school buddy. However, where Degas became an artist, Rouart became an engineer and made significant advances in the art of refrigeration. They met again during the Franco-Prussian war where as chance would have it, Degas found himself under Rouart's command. From this relationship a friendship developed and Rouart became a patron not only of the arts, but of the impressionists in particular. This was obviously a boon for these artists, particularly since the establishment wasn't all that keen on their work.

This is the first of Degas' Ballet paintings, of Mademoiselle Eugene Fioce. This is a painting of her appearing in the ballet The Source (a ballet that I'm not all that familiar with, but then again I'm not a huge fan of the ballet). The thing about this production was that live horses appeared on the stage. Emile Zola noted that the painting has a strange quality in that it appeared that it was of a horse drinking at a spring rather than of a ballet, and also that it appeared to be a Japanese print.

Day at the Races

Horses were one of Degas' passions, though not in the sense that he spent every waking hour down at the track trying his luck on the latest tip and spending his time hanging around with the bookies. Rather he had a fascination with the horses and being able to capture their movement on canvas. In fact being able to capture movement was one of Degas' goals in painting, particularly since up until this time paintings tended to be static - in a way a moment captured in time and placed on canvas. However Degas wanted to go beyond that and explore the nature of movement and whether it is possible to capture it on canvas.

In Degas' time horses were ubiquitous in the sense that cars are ubiquitous in our day and age (despite the fact that I don't actually own one - car or horse). This animal was everywhere, and it fascinated Degas. In the way that he developed his style by mimicking the old masters, he also practiced painting horses through copying the animeliers, who specialised in capturing horses and other animals. In a way these works would lead him onto his more famous works, and that is of the ballet dances.

The Dancers

Degas' friendships with a number of musicians at the time brought him into contact with the world of the ballet. However, it has been suggested that Degas' paintings were crafted in the studio as opposed to behind the scenes at the various venues, including the opera house that was destroyed by fire. However, since Degas was connected, he no doubt had access to these behind the scene venues, and I suspect probably spent his time here watching the dancer's practice, and also practicing his skills by sketching what he saw. Yet Degas didn't consider himself an artist that worked in nature, but rather an artist that worked in a studio - in a way he was really only able to create his works in the comfort of his own home as opposed to out amongst the population. Also, the first paintings that Degas sold were the ballet dancers, and one of the reasons that they were so popular was because the bucked the trend in exploring the realism as opposed to the romantic ideal of the time (and also the way we view his paintings today).

Degas actually petitioned the Paris Opera to give him a backstage pass, but they were quite reluctant to do so and he only managed to get it in 1885. When he did receive it he was basically a regular, though this started to taper off when the musical style began to change. Mind you, by the time he received his pass he had already created his monotype, which was based on a best selling book Le Familie Cardinal, which was written by one of his high school friends. The concept behind this book was that it examined the illicit liasons between the young and poorly paid dancers at the opera and many of the gentlemen that would frequent the area. In fact Degas even incorporated them into some of his paintings as dark figures who lurked out the back.

The House in New Orleans

In 1872 Degas went on a trip to New Orleans where he stayed for five months with his mother's brother. He was running a wine export business which was being funded by the Degas Bank back in Paris. It was here that he painted a couple of pictures, one of a house and one of a cotton export business. The interesting thing is that New Orleans still has an incredibly strong French influence, and is actually considered to be more Cajun than American. This makes it stand out a lot since it is surrounded by the deep south.

The painting that landed up in the exhibition was a pretty complicated one as it involves fourteen men all working and demonstrates Degas' passion for the works of the Dutch masters and in particular their guild paintings which had a similar theme and style. However, we must remember that Degas was an impressionist, and one that focused on capturing movement as opposed to capturing a moment in time on canvas. While it isn't necessarily one of his most complex, it does demonstrate much of his skill.

The Final Years

In 1875 Degas returned to etching, something that he had let slip for a while, and for the next five years basically focused all his attention on these works. One of the major focuses during this time was the female nude. By 1876 he had fully developed the style, and had become one of the best etchers at the time. Instead of using the term of a drawing made with thick ink, he instead referred to it as a monotype, and had the dark background, where there would be ink on the back, and the light background where the etchings would be made directly onto the plate.

Around this time Degas also returned to working with pastels, which was something that he had original picked up in Italy. This is one of the reasons why much of his art actually appears the way that it does - unlike many of his contemporaries Degas shied away from paints and experimented with other mediums. One of the topics he worked one were not just female nudes, but nudes in the act of washing. This raised quite a few eyebrows as it would have been near impossible for Degas to have had access to women in the bath, unless of course they happened to be in a brothel. This, no doubt, gave rise to quite a number of rumours.

Near the end of his life Degas began to work with landscapes, though many of them were created from memory. Like his other works, he used pastals, but in creating them from memory he would also add quite a lot more vibrancy to them. His statement was that he would stand at the door of the coach and look around, however also referred to these landscapes as imaginary landscapes. In 1898 he made a further attempt into a landscape, and proved that one did not need to travel half way around the world but could also create such scenes from their own backyard.

In 1857 emperor Napoleon III opened the Longchamp Racecourse to the West of Paris and over the years the popularity of racing grew, especially among the middle classes. In fact at one time the noise of the crowds were so loud it was suggested that it could be heard all the way from the Eiffel tower. In one sense the popularity of the races here was comparable to the Melbourne Cup where many people who care little about the races through most of the year suddenly make themselves known. In a sense it is more a question of fashion and being seen than actually having any interested in the horses. While I did have a pastel work based on this, it was actually from a private collection so I have since deleted the photo (because I wasn't supposed to take a photo of it). Instead I will finish off this post with a pastel of a woman arranging her hair.

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The Draftsman Degas by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me


  1. The Norton Simon Museum here in California has a huge Degas collection. (Over 100 works.) His small sculptures (mostly of dancers) are quite interesting. You can see some of the influence on Rodin and others. They have so many that only a fraction are on view at any given time.

    1. It would be interesting to see some of Degas' sculptures, since I saw this exhibition before I had to huge exposure to Rodin. It is mindboggling how many works these artists produced though, especially since we only ever get to see a handful.