A grumbling genius? Impressions of Degas
Although seen as an Impressionist, the painter was never comfortable with the term and even derided its proponents
Detail from ‘Dancers Resting’ by Edgar Degas: ‘The dancers’ faces are simian masks.’ Heritage Foundation, Lausanne
Detail from ‘The Race Track; Amateur Jockeys Near a Carriage’.Musée d’Orsay
Detail from ‘Cotton Market in New Orleans’. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Pau
Detail from ‘A Visit to The Museum’. National Gallery of Art, Washington
Detail from ‘Ballet’, also known as ‘The Star’. Musée d’Orsay
Detail from ‘Houses by the Sea’ (1869). Musée d’Orsay
A debate as old as Impressionism itself has been revived by an exhibition taking place this spring and summer in Giverny, the Mecca of the movement: how does one define Impressionism? Who belonged and who didn’t?
“It wasn’t a school. It wasn’t a theory,” says Marina Ferretti, director of the Museum of Impressionisms at Giverny and co-commissioner of the exhibition Degas: An Impressionist Painter?
“They were individuals with very strong personalities who did not allow themselves to be locked into a system. It was simply an attitude, at a time when French society was changing enormously.”
A snide critic at the first exhibition in 1874, inspired by the title of Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, branded the Impressionist movement. The painters were initially insulted, but most eventually embraced the name.
Edgar Degas was an exception. Although he co-organised all eight Impressionist exhibitions, he rejected the term, saying: “Impressionism doesn’t mean anything.”
Degas’s theories tended more towards naturalism and strongly influenced art critic Edmond Duranty, who published The New Painting in 1876.
Théodore Duret, an art critic who was less adoring of Degas, described Monet as “the Impressionist par excellence” in his 1878 book The Impressionist Painters. For him, Monet, Renoir, Berthe Morisot, Pissarro and Sisley were the only true Impressionists.
There’s a certain irony in the fact that a major Degas exhibition is being held in Monet’s home village. While Monet admired Degas, the latter’s cranky disposition and hurt pride made him disdainful of Monet. “[Degas] regards it all as art designed to sell,” Pissarro wrote, recounting Degas’s reaction to a Monet exhibition. “He has always been of the opinion that Monet . . . turned out nothing but beautiful decorations.”
Monet and Degas were rival leaders. “The fact that one of Monet’s paintings gave its name to the movement annoyed Degas,” says Ferretti. “If the name ‘New Painting’ had taken hold, Degas would have felt more at ease.”
If one must venture a definition, then “Impressionism meant quickly, spontaneously painted landscapes, with priority given to pattern, light colours and blue shadows”, Ferretti says. “But it’s more accurate to use the plural. There are as many Impressionisms as there are painters, and each had several periods.”
Degas was a city dweller who spent evenings in cafes, at the opera or ballet and in bordellos. He loved the glimmer of gaslight on the legs of ballerinas. “You can have nature; I’ll take what is artificial,” he told the Impressionists.
Degas also scorned outdoor painting, a fundamental tenet of Impressionism. “If I were the government, I’d hire a brigade of gendarmes to keep an eye out for people painting from nature,” he told art dealer Ambroise Vollard. He mocked admirers of Monet’s waterlilies for “going wobbly at the sight of a pond” and told Monet that he “stayed one second in your exhibition” because “your paintings make me dizzy”.
Monet aspired to “paint like a bird sings”. The ease with which he painted exasperated Degas. “Bloody Monet,” Degas said. “Everything he does is right, right away, whereas I go to so much trouble, and it’s still not right.”
Degas worked off and on for 12 years on The Race Track; Amateur Jockeys Near a Carriage. It’s a curious painting, with nearly a quarter of the canvas painted in Degas’s characteristic bright green. One horse is running, the others are stationary, so one is not certain what moment of the race is represented.
A Visit to the Museum, an oil version of Degas’s studies of American painter Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, is one of the few Degas paintings that could properly be described as Impressionist.
Degas rendered paintings in the Louvre’s grand gallery as mere streaks of colour, framed in gold.
From a wealthy banking family with roots in Italy and New Orleans, Degas was extremely cultivated and knew the Louvre’s collection by heart. At the age of 21, he met his idol, Ingres, whose advice he took to heart: “Never from nature, young man. Always from memory and the engravings of the masters.”
The Impressionists’ spontaneity was alien to Degas. “No art is as unspontaneous as mine,” he wrote. “What I do is the result of reflection and studying the great masters. Of inspiration, spontaneity . . . I know nothing.”
But as the Giverny exhibition makes clear, Degas was more innovative than his Impressionist comrades. He invented the monotype, a print made by drawing with ink or oil paint on a metal plate. Each plate made several prints, which Degas then reworked in pastels.
Degas’s wonderful Cotton Market in New Orleans, the only painting he brought back from a stay with his mother’s family in the New World, includes a portrait of his uncle in the left foreground, pulling at a tuft of cotton. “People do nothing here . . . except cotton,” Degas wrote. “They live for cotton and from cotton.” The 1873 painting has multiple light sources and an almost photographic quality.
The Giverny exhibition includes a room of Degas’s little-known but exquisite pastel landscapes, which bear more resemblance to Delacroix or the Symbolists than to Impressionism.
As he grew older and his vision failed, Degas became more daring. His 1898 Dancers Resting is an explosion of electric blue, flaming red and orange and chrome yellow. The dancers’ faces are simian masks, foretelling Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon.
“Monet and Degas were the precursors of different strains of modern art,” says Ferretti. “Monet led to abstraction; Degas to fauvism and cubism.”
In Ballet, also known as The Star, the prima ballerina basks in applause, front and centre-stage. It was painted with pastels, one of Degas’s favourite mediums, which he likened to “the powder of a butterfly’s wings”. Pastels were uniquely suited to Degas’s habit of working quickly but retouching the same picture over and over.
The laundresses, dancers and hat-makers whom Degas painted were considered nearly as sexually accessible as the prostitutes he also frequented. His lifelike wax sculpture (later cast in bronze) of a 14-year-old ballerina shocked France’s Third Republic. Critics called her “perverse” and “bestial”.
“The terrible truthfulness of this statuette is a source of obvious discomfort,” JK Huysmans wrote in 1883. “Notions about sculpture, about that cold inanimate whiteness, those memorable stereotypes replicated for centuries, are being overturned.”
A male figure in a dark suit, his face hidden by the curtain, lurks offstage in The Star. Referred to as “uncles”, the men who haunted ballet performances were often pimps. Degas’s 14-year-old dancer was probably already a prostitute. She died young, of syphilis.
Art historians have long speculated over what Ferretti calls Degas’s “opaque sexuality”. Some believe he was cruel or misogynist, because he often portrayed nudes in awkward positions.
Vincent van Gogh speculated that Degas was an impotent voyeur. Edouard Manet believed Degas was “incapable of loving a woman, of even telling her he does”. Degas never married. “There is something artificial even about this heart of mine,” he wrote at age 52. “The dancers have sewn it into a pink satin bag, a slightly faded satin, like their ballet slippers.”
The engraver Joseph-Gabriel Tourny described the painter’s disposition as “Degas who grumbles and Edgar who growls”. He quarrelled with most of his friends, because they didn’t like his portraits of them, or disagreed about who should be allowed to exhibit, or over the Dreyfus affair.
Degas died aged 83, a blind and lonely old man, in the midst of the first World War. His magnificent collection of paintings, which contained not a single Monet, was broken up and auctioned off.
NOT ALL ABOUT THE MONET: THE HOME OF IMPRESSIONISM
Few outings could be more enjoyable this summer than a day trip to Giverny, the little village north of Paris that Claude Monet turned into the world capital of Impressionism.
It’s a 50-minute train ride from the Gare Saint-Lazare to Vernon, where you can catch a shuttle bus or rent a bicycle at the pizzeria across from the train station for the last 5km to Giverny. You can also drive up the A13/A14 highway from Paris.
Both the Museum of Impressionisms and Monet’s nearby house and garden, where he painted the famous waterlilies, are now open seven days a week. Try to go on a Monday or Wednesday, when crowds are less of a problem.
In addition to Degas: An Impressionist Painter? (until July 19th) the Museum of Impressionisms is exhibiting artists who were influenced by Monet, including Maurice Denis and American Joan Mitchell. There are art classes for children and adults, concerts and guided tours of the gardens. mdig.fr