gigatos | November 22, 2021
Edgar Degas (Paris, 19 July 1834 – 27 September 1917) was a French painter and sculptor.
Edgar Degas (full and original name Edgar-Germain-Hilaire de Gas), the painter who became world-famous during his career, was descended from a French noble family.
His grandfather, Hilaire-René de Gas, fled to Naples to escape the threat to the nobility posed by the Great French Revolution. He became a banker and later left the management of his Paris branch to his son, Edgar Degas” father. Auguste de Gas, from the former French colony of Louisiana in North America, married richly. Their child, who was to become a painter, was thus not only brought up in favourable and financially secure circumstances, but his parents were also able to bear the burden of expensive travel for years on end during his youth.
After graduating from high school, he began studying law, but soon turned his back on law and devoted all his time and energy to becoming an artist. His inclination towards art had already been evident from an early age. During his high school years he drew well and with great enthusiasm. His father, himself an art-loving man, looked on his son”s experiments with goodwill and pleasure. He allowed him to furnish a room in their large apartment as a studio; he took him to museums, exhibitions, opera performances, and it was probably with his knowledge that the young law student also studied drawing with the brother of the eminent sculptor Felix Barrias, a minor painter. We do not know whether he was driven by his own instinct or by the encouragement of his master, and began to copy paintings by Dürer, Mantegna and Rembrandt in the Louvre. It seems to have been his own inclination that drove him to this work, for he left Barrias, but remained faithful to his copying practice in later years.
In 1854, Ingres chose Lamothe, a pupil of medium ability, as his master, but only for a short time, as he went to Naples to visit relatives in the same year.
On his return from Italy, he gave up his studies in law and, with his father”s consent, enrolled in 1855 at the École des Beaux-Arts, where he studied with Bonnat and Fantin-Latour. These studies did not last long either. The first stage of the young painter”s maturation was completed by the education and self-education he had received up to that point. Instead, he returned to the masterpieces of the old masters.
In 1857 he travelled again to Italy. He visited several small towns, such as Perugia, Assisi and Viterbo. He stayed longer in Orvieto, where he copied details of the admired Luca Signorelli paintings, but the real attraction and influence was the memories of Naples, Florence and Rome. His works from these years, which are considered to be Degas”s first independent works (Self-Portrait, Portrait of his Grandfather) (from this time onwards he wrote his name in this civilized form), show that the young artist was inspired by the linear style and clear lines of Ingres, alongside the old masters. The firmly guided line, the thoughtful, preconceived pictorial structure and the clear drawing of the detail forms remained his ideals throughout. Ingres, whom he held in very high esteem, only told him to draw more lines than he did, and he himself later advised all young people who came to him to ”draw, draw and draw, because that is the way to create”.
“I think I will end up in the madhouse,” wrote Laure Bellelli to her nephew. The sister of Edgar Degas”s father, she married Gennaro Bellelli, whom she considered “boring” and disgusting. They lived in Florence with their two daughters, Giulia (centre) and Giovanna (left) Degas prepared this painting during his stay in Florence in 1858, making a series of sketches, but painted it in Paris. The artist depicts the gloomy atmosphere in the house of a couple who do not love each other. In addition, the Bellelli family is in mourning over the death of Laure”s father, Hilaire de Gas.
The girls” white aprons, the pale floral pattern of the fabric and the gold picture frame do little to brighten up the Bellelli family”s modest but desperately sad home.
Standing in front of a portrait of her deceased father, Laure does not hide her suffering, her gaze fixed on the void where death lurks.
Degas first exhibited this painting as a family portrait at the Salon of 1867. Having failed to attract critical attention, the disappointed artist put the canvas away in his studio due to indifference. The Family Portrait was not exhibited again until 1918, after the artist”s death, and is now considered one of the masterpieces of his youth.
An important element of his art, draughtsmanship, was thus already evident in the early years of his career, and from then on it developed from work to work. In 1858 Degas spent time in Italy again. In Florence, he stayed at his paternal uncle”s house and, first as a pastime and later with the idea of editing a group portrait, he made drawings and studies of members of the family. The painting was not completed in Florence, but on his return to Paris, drawing on his editing skills, memory and sketches, he painted a large composition (The Bellelli Family) over the next two years.
In this early work, then, we see another very characteristic element of Degas”s creative method: the fact that the painting itself, however realistic, however immediate and momentary, is never made before the motif is seen, in the heat of the moment, in the heat of the moment of the painting”s inspiration, but always on the basis of studies and notes, later in the studio, in the calm reflection of memory.
A third feature can be seen in the group portrait of The Bellelli family. It is that careful editing hides behind the mask of chance, of contingency, and that Degas always avoided the pose, the solemnity of the setting in the arrangement of the figures. The figures, whether drawn or painted, never betray the fact that they are sitting as models through their posture or their posture. Their posture is always inexhaustive, “painterly”, accidental. For this reason, the painting always becomes unheard of, almost alarmingly lifelike.
Yet in the early sixties Degas was still uncertain about his choice of subject, his genre and his technique. At the time, he had fallen under the spell of large-scale oil painting with historical subjects. Not unsuccessfully, for his exhibitions of this kind were praised by Puvis de Chavannes, the justly celebrated master of historical wall paintings. He also painted some fine portraits at the same time (in the first half of the 1860s) and in these, although mostly sketches from memory, he proved himself a careful observer and objective renderer of reality and detail. Critics who doubtfully underestimated his Impressionist development have referred to these works with exaggerated praise. It is certain, however, that if Degas”s development had stopped at this point, or only progressed in this direction, he would hardly be celebrated today as one of the pioneers of the revival of French art. But Degas did not, could not, stop at this point in his development, nor did his restless, inquisitive nature allow his artistic development to be oriented towards the observation and objective reflection of the mere spectacle. His understanding of the elements of observed reality was soon matched by a sovereign, formative imagination, and he did not resist artistic influences when they fertilised his creative spirit. Such was the influence – formal and structural – of the particular world of Japanese woodcuts on Degas”s art. The Japanese woodcutters, Hiroshige, Hokusai, Utamaro, had a different character and a different composition than European artists since the Renaissance. Their works appeared in Paris in the 1960s and soon became known, loved and even fashionable. These woodcuts were bought, collected and discussed by inquiring and progressive artists, whose authors did not concentrate the structure and possible thought in the centre of the picture surface, but projected it, by apparent accident, elsewhere on the surface, perhaps on the edge. Their depictions were not structured in a linear perspective, everything was expressed and laid out on the plane and in the plane. If Degas”s paintings did not lack a mapping perspective, they never became conspicuous; on the contrary, he often depicted in a panoramic manner, often making use of omissions and crossings; his pictorial structure did not seek the centre and he omitted a large or small part of the objects and figures at the edges. In the mid-1960s, his intentions for further development became clearer. His fateful decision was to break with the past and history and to capture only the present, the phenomena of interest to him in the world around him.
His first interest was in the world of horse racing, and this determined many other characteristics of his art, especially his lightness of movement and colour. The horses, nervously pacing, the riders dressed in colourful silk jackets, sitting or standing on them, the audience, excitedly bustling and smartly dressed, the sight of green lawns, the rich variety of the slightly broken blue of the sky, the mist of the air and the soft shadows, all created in him lasting impressions and brought out his painterly inclinations.
In 1866, a painting of a horse race was included in an exhibition at the Paris Salon, but the public and critics did not take notice of Degas”s work. Its novelty did not shock the public, as it was only a modest departure from the usual.
Two years after the appearance of the horse races, Degas turned his attention to the theatre, and more specifically to the world of opera. This was natural for a painter who had been familiar with the Opera from his early youth, and even had access to the backstage area. His first attempts were still tentative. For the time being, he approached the new subject matter in a tentative way. His first picture, of a ballet dancer, was still a little clumsy. Especially when compared to the wonderful solutions that followed. There is no movement, little lightness. But it abounds in sharply observed detail, joyfully captured by the painter”s brush.
Until then, Degas had been a lonely scout in the dens of art. He has not yet found any painters with similar ambitions. Part of the reason for this may have been his reclusive nature and his family”s isolation from the company of artists. The impenetrable walls that separated the various classes of French society in the last century are vividly illustrated by the novels and narratives of Balzac, the diaries of Delacroix, the Russian Maria Baskirchev and the diary of the Hungarian Zsigmond Justh.
So it was only natural that Degas found his first painter friend, Édouard Manet, who, like Degas, was the son of a wealthy bourgeois family, was not plagued by financial problems and did not have to seek the favour of the public to find buyers for his works.
Their acquaintance began in 1862, and as they understood each other well on matters of art, Degas soon began to seek Manet”s company outside his usual circles. By then, Manet was a daily guest at the Café Guerbois, a quiet café that was ideal for conversation, and some of the young painters who frequented the Salon”s exhibitions regularly visited his table. It was at this table that Degas soon became a guest. When Manet”s Olympia caused a terrible scandal at the Salon in 1866, and then Breakfast in the Open Air, which aroused the disapproval of the public in Madrid, and led to some younger but boldly new-minded painters – Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Jean-Frédéric Bazille and others – also requesting a place at the table, Degas, through his earlier membership, was already an authority.
It was at this café table that Degas, who was otherwise so reticent, became acquainted, even a kind of aloof friend, with the painters – the Impressionists – with whom he would later struggle shoulder to shoulder for decades, and with writers (notably Zola) who supported this struggle as best they could in the press. For the time being, this struggle has consisted of professional discussions, quiet debates, painting pictures in accordance with established principles, and (usually unsuccessful) attempts to exhibit and sell them. All of these artists produced some early masterpieces, but they were already representative of their further development (Degas: Orchestra 1867-69, Monet: La Grenouillére 1869, Manet: Departing Ship 1869, some of Pissarro”s landscapes, etc.), but they failed to generate interest in their work. Manet was an exception, at least he had already been condemned by academics, the public, the public at large and the critics (except for the one Baudelaire).
The Opera Orchestra is one of Degas”s most famous paintings, though rarely exhibited in the artist”s lifetime. It illustrates a break with classical beginnings and points towards realism and modern painting. Degas, hitherto a historical painter seeking antique inspiration, is entering resolutely into modern times. He depicts the life and pastimes of the Parisian elite. Horse races, concerts and ballet performances at the opera. Behind the scenes, he watches, draws and befriends the musicians. Désiré, the bassoonist Dihau, befriends him and models for him. Surrounded by other musicians, he is the central figure of the opera orchestra. However, all faces are equally expressive. Degas strives to express the characteristic of each one. Even the legs and skirts of the dancers dancing above the musicians give the scene an improbable and evocative character. On the left, in the box, is the face of the painter”s friend, the composer Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894).
It is not known whether Degas gave this painting to Dishau or sold it to him, but it is certain that he kept it until the musician”s death. In 1909, the canvas was inherited by his sister, the pianist Marie Dihau, who attached great importance to it, as she did to her own portrait by Degas. Only lack of means to live on forced him to give up the painting, and in 1935 he donated it to the Luxembourg Museum in Paris in return for a perpetual annuity. After his death, both Degas”s works became the property of the French State.
The picture of the musicians of the orchestra is from the same period, painted in a similar way to the opera orchestra. Degas breaks with the rules of the circular representation of theatre scenes. He deliberately chooses an innovative point of view, which creates contrasts and disrupts proportions, giving the whole composition a distinctly modern character. Both paintings are based on the contrast between the world of mature men, depicted in dark colours, and the ramp bathed in bright light, the effect of youth and femininity represented by the ballet dancers. These are not portraits, but genre pictures. They anticipate Degas”s later painterly fascination with ballet dancers. It is well known, after all, that Edgar Degas was fond of painting this subject.
In 1870, however, the Franco-Prussian War, so tragic for the French nation, broke out. The Table Society was disbanded as its members either joined the army or fled abroad. Degas was also a soldier, and although he was not in the line of fire, the events in Paris in the aftermath of the war and the disaster took his brush out of his hands for several years.
During his military service, he was attacked by an eye disease from which he never fully recovered. Sometimes relieving, sometimes relapsing, but always severely distressing, his eye problems affected his vision and his ability to portray, and eventually led to almost total blindness.
In 1872, immediately after his discharge, he travelled to North America (New Orleans) to visit his mother”s relatives. As on his visit to Italy, he developed a plan for a group portrait, using family members as models.
During his stay in the United States in 1872-73, Degas was fed up with the never-ending series of portraits that his American family members asked him to paint. So he started work on a painting of the office of a cotton picking company in New Orleans. In Louisiana, people “live for cotton and because of cotton”, he notes in his letter. The trade in this “precious material” therefore proves to be a fortunate subject for an image that captures the “couleur locale”. Degas likes to spend time in the office of his uncle Michel Musson, who is shown in the first plane of the picture, holding a cotton sample. In the middle of the shop, René de Gas, the painter”s brother and son-in-law of Michel Musson, is sitting on a chair reading a newspaper. On the left, his other brother Achilles stands leaning on the cash desk window, his legs crossed carelessly. The elegant nonchalance of the two brothers contrasts with the figures of the other men, who are busy at work, the black of their suits in sharp contrast to the whiteness of the cotton, shirts and newspaper.
The picture was taken after his stay in the United States in 1872-73.
Even this time he did not paint the painting on the spot, but he did make a number of detailed sketches of the family members. The large oil painting was painted in Paris in 1873.
Already in the Bellelli family group portrait, Degas”s compositional style showed the characteristic of a strict structure in which the individual figures are characterized by a random, seemingly accidental posture and articulation. This effect was not only intensified in the Cotton Merchant, but became downright masterly.
After his return to Paris, Degas presents the painting at the second Impressionist exhibition. The public found it too shallow and boring, and paid it little attention. Meanwhile, Degas” attention was attracted to realism. During his stay in America, he decided that ”the naturalistic current (…) must be raised to the rank of the greatest painterly movements…” When, in 1878, the Pau City Museum approached Degas about buying the Cotton Trade in New Orleans, he immediately agreed, even though the price was lower than the asking price. He is delighted at the prospect of his painting becoming part of a museum collection, flattered by his vanity.
He also probably painted the Pedicure based on sketches from Louisiana. The artist used the subtle play of light to achieve the effect he wanted in his work on paper on canvas (as in his painting of the Jocks). Thanks to the paint diluted with turpentine, Degas achieves special effects, especially on the parts of the material in which the child is wrapped – the folds of his blinds. The little girl is the daughter of René, the artist”s brother, by his wife Estelle de Gas, his first wife.
Back home from America, Degas is back at work in full force. He not only throws new canvases, sketches new subjects on his canvases, but also continues, or perhaps restarts or reworks, his previously begun works, which were abandoned or inadequately resolved and against his wishes. It is certain that he worked on some of them for many years, and therefore only very few of his paintings from 1870 to 1880 can be dated with an exact date. Such is the case with the work that marked a decisive turning point in his artistic career, The Cog in the Racecourse, and the similar subject matter of The Jocks in front of the Grandstand. In these works, he broke with the rules of composition of academic painting, something that could not be done with impunity by anyone who wanted to win prizes and success at the Salon.
The way Degas composed the image of the Tooth was astonishing. In the foreground we see the Valpincon family preparing for a carriage ride. Not only has he placed the main subject in the corner of the picture, but he has also cut the wheels of the carriage halfway off the lower edge of the picture. The horses” legs and even the head of one of the horses have been removed from the picture. The lack of detail is compensated for, however, and the unity and balance of the structure is ensured by the more detailed, colourful vividness of the other half of the picture space: the moving, alternating patches of colour of the small figures and the summing-up power of the bluish-white sky above them. Two moments further enhance the compositional effect of colour in Degas”s paintings. Firstly, unlike the rules of earlier painting, the shadowy areas are not covered by veils of black, grey or blue. The shadows are merely rendered by the darker and less luminous shades of the colours used. He was greatly aided by the technique he used to achieve his intentions. In particular, he conveniently removed most of the greasy, shiny oil from the oil pastes he normally used, and diluted the hardness of the resulting glossless (but still oil-bound) pastes to a brushable softness by adding turpentine. The turpentine, being volatile in nature, evaporated quickly, leaving a thin layer of glossless paint. Its effect was in many ways similar to that of water and tempera painting, and allowed an incredible variety of shades to be achieved.
His painting The jockeys in front of the grandstand was based on sketches he had made live. Degas was also influenced by Ernest Meissonier”s (1815-1891) Napoleon III at the Battle of Solferino. He considered Meissonier ”a giant among dwarfs”, the best of the academic painters he despised, and admired his methods of depicting horses. His painting The Jocks exudes a sense of calm, despite the unruly horse in the background. The painting is far removed from the feverish atmosphere of horse racing, where the galloping of horses is accompanied by the shouts of spectators, as described by Émile Zola (1840-1902) in his famous novel ”Nana”. Degas chooses moments of pause to capture the natural, tension-free posture of the animals. Before the painting, Degas covers the canvas with paper and paints in places where the darkest parts of the picture are located. He makes a sketch in pencil and draws the outlines in pen and ink. Only then does he apply the paint mixed with petroleum to obtain duller, less lustrous colours, as a result of the oil mixed with turpentine.
The picture, which was shown at the first Impressionist exhibition, was bought by the opera singer Jean Baptiste Faure (1830-1914). Faure was a collector of Impressionist works and commissioned five paintings from Degas in 1874. The painter, however, delayed the completion of one of the commissioned paintings (Race of the Horse). Degas is a perfectionist and often has an infinite capacity for improvement. The work takes thirteen years to complete!
The image captures the hectic, excitement-filled atmosphere of horse racing. The group of jockeys on the right has its counterpart on the left, in the form of the rider on horseback, arched back and galloping at the speed of a train spouting white steam.
Horse racing, amateur riders
He began painting the picture in 1876 and finished it in 1887.Musée d”Orsay – Paris
His ability to capture movement, to analyse the value of colour and the technical experimentation that helped him to do so, also marked the end of Degas”s reign as a painter of other subjects. Scenes from the theatre and ballet never left the painter”s canvases, and they formed the vast majority of his studies.
He had to endure the laborious, sweaty mornings of teaching ballet. With the same lightness of touch that he later brought to the breathtaking light of the performances, he also captured with the same naturalness the repetition-weary movements of the rehearsals and the crumpled, worn ordinariness of the objects, garments and furniture scattered around the site.
In 1874, a group of friends at the artists” table of the Guerbois café decided to do something remarkable. Since the doors to the Salon”s exhibition were not open to most of the members” works, they decided to organise a group performance outside the official exhibition. They had no suitable premises, but their friend Nadar, a well-heeled, joking photographer, made his studio and several large rooms available to them. Although Degas did not need to sell, and his pictures were mostly exhibited at the Salon, if not joyfully, and he was therefore the least interested in a separate exhibition, he also disagreed with his younger companions on many issues, but he was enthusiastic about the organisation. Although Manet stayed away from the enterprise, he was represented by ten paintings by Degas. It was at this exhibition that one critic derisively referred to the painters and their paintings as ”impressionists”. The Parisian public went to the exhibition to jeer and laugh, but his heroes later triumphed over the name-calling, and the works they laughed at deservedly earned them honour and world fame.
Degas did not like the term Impressionist. (It was for this reason that the group later used the name Indépendants – Independents.) Despite this, he stuck with his friends throughout, and until 1886, when the group held its last group exhibition, he asked to be part of their struggles. He was, and remained, a man of wealth, secure income and aristocratic sentiments. The only time his fortunes came to a crisis was when he came to the aid of his brother, who was in stock market trouble. He did not spend his income on the redemption of life”s external pleasures and delights. He walked simply, lived simply, ate simply. He never married, and we know nothing of his loves or tender affairs. His only love was his art, and he gave plenty to his passion for collecting. He often rushed to the aid of his painter friends by buying their works, thus not only providing them with money, but also giving them moral satisfaction by appreciating their works.
One of Degas”s earliest and very distinctive works, in which his individuality is clearly visible. The painting is entitled Dancers at the Railing.
There are many characters, although there are only two human figures, two little dancers. But the railing on which the resting girls rest their outstretched legs, the plank stones running along the floor in a similar way, and finally the watering can in the left corner, almost forgotten, are perfectly equal to these two figures. The latter, in addition to its visual value, provides the balance of the structure, which might tip over without it, and adds a sense of freedom to the mood of the picture. But this apparent stillness of the elements of the picture is disrupted and becomes a lively movement in the interlocking, interlocking, interlocking running back and forth of the outlines of the individual parts. From this point onwards, movement becomes another characteristic feature of Degas”s work, and either implicitly or explicitly, it becomes one of the main factors in the overall artistic effect of the following years.
In the seventies, Degas devoted a very large part of his work to his portrayals of dancers and ballet dancers. A large number of drawings and studies of details on such subjects were produced during these years. This shows that he was a rigorous critic of his work, but also that he continued to create the final form of his pictures in the studio, based on his studies and memories, and in obedience to his imagination as a shaper and editor. The only surprising thing is that the many preliminary stages, the many attempts, repetitions and careful deliberations did not make the final solution stale and tortured, but on the contrary, the picture finally painted shows a more perfect result than any previous sketch or version. Yet he worked a lot, a lot, because he seized the opportunities that presented themselves almost indiscriminately. Goethe”s advice to grasp the fullness of life, because wherever one grasps it, it becomes an interesting and accepted practice throughout Degas”s oeuvre. Indeed, he grasped in abundance the fullness of life that was revealed to him. There was no subject unworthy of him, whatever motif he took to his brush. But whatever he chose, the result was always elevated, tasteful, artistic.
This is exemplified in one of his most famous and astonishingly witty works, entitled Place de la Concorde, which is supposed to be a Parisian skyline, but the subject of the painting is different. The title is an indication of the scene, but the large neoclassical palaces of the square, boasting a cold solemnity, play the least part in the picture itself. The subject is actually a portrait – an edited, pre-arranged group portrait, in fact – but this is also only a pretext. It is a pretext for Degas to capture in colour and light a direct moment of life and movement on the ground of the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The painter, like a photographer, has ”instantly” projected onto his canvas the image of his friend, Vicomte Lepic, walking through the square with his two daughters and his dog. How the two girls and the beautiful dog stop for a moment, how the male figure turns to follow them, but he has only just peered into the picture from the left, because the painter has only allowed his bearded face, the brim of his horned hat and a narrow mark of his tall, lanky body (consisting of a ruffled tie, dark coat buttons and trouser leg) to appear on his canvas.
Place de la Concorde (circa 1875)
The main figure itself is not complete. The lower edge of the image is cut off above the knee, as are the two little girls at the waist and the dog”s forelegs. On the left, in the background, two wheels of a carriage are moving out of the picture, and a rider is riding in the opposite direction towards the centre. So it”s all cuts, cuts and cover-ups. Contrast and contrast. The indifference of the huge main figure (filling the entire height of the picture) emphasises the interested gaze of the girl in the right-hand corner, the empty central space the movement of the human figures in front. And this movement is heightened to an unheard-of degree by the cuts and the cover-ups. We do not see Lepic”s legs, but the protruding axis of his torso, the crossing line of the umbrella held under his arm, which also thrusts forward and downward, and the cigar slightly extended from his slightly raised head, keep him moving and in control more than if his steps were explained by pedantically painted legs, and the fact that we can only see two wheels of the carriage makes it plausible that the next moment it will roll on, and we almost expect the incompletely perceived male figure in the left-hand corner of the frame to immediately follow the Lepic joke that has not yet noticed him.
From the mid-seventies onwards, Degas” imagination was captured by the café chantant, the types of people and scenes that were to be found there. He created a whole series of compositions of this kind, with excellent colour and lighting effects. One of his very first such paintings was Song of the Dog (Chanson du chien), in which he captured an artist singing a then popular ”hit song”. The singer”s plump figure stretches awkwardly in the garden auditorium, where in the bluish shadows of the night the listeners are more suggestive than clearly visible. The main figure is highlighted by the light reflecting off a lit column. The mood of the picture does not reflect the cheerfulness expected of a cabaret. Its colour elements, its optical appearance, are more like a distorted exoticism, a desire to escape, a cry for help.
… the colour changes of the garden lighting at night with mysterious blues, without mixing them with black.
The mystery, however, remains only a component of some of the pub and cabaret scenes, where the flickering, fading and fading rays of artificial light soften and soften the often alarmingly raw forms and colours of suburban nights. On other occasions, however, he captures the startling features of reality with the most precise observation, and records them in his pictures with unrelenting objectivity and without mercy.
One of the most harrowing and wonderful examples of these unrelieved images of reality is Absinthe (In the Coffee House). Apart from the fact that this painting stands out in Degas” oeuvre for its delicate colour tones and delicate brushwork, it is a great testimony to his master”s psychological awareness and character-forming power. In front of a wall of mirrors in a café (probably the Nouvelle Athénes), a woman and a man sit behind bleak tables. The woman, dressed in cheap separates, nods her head forward, her eyes now drunkenly vacant. Her posture is slack, unconcerned. In front of her, a large glass of opalescent, destructive drink. The man has pulled away from her, his hat pushed back on his head, his teeth clenched around a pipe, and he looks sideways at his neglected appearance, almost proudly, even defiantly. His two broken-down liquor-bags are now the irredeemable prey of the material and moral decay that has already taken place. They are no longer fighting it, but their posture and expression show that even if they did, their efforts would be short, feeble and futile.
Absinthe in the coffee house (1876)
The woman surrenders, the man almost puts his destruction on display. He almost brags about it. The inner content of the two figures, and the typology of their content, is entirely Degas”s creation, for their external features are modelled by two venerable artists, the graphic artist Desboutin and the actress Ellen Andrée. Neither of them was obsessed with drink. It was Degas”s particular talent – and this is what most distinguishes him from his Impressionist peers – to add to his superb rendering of the natural landscape, his virtuoso rendering of its optical reality, the sharp and convincing qualities of psychological characterisation.
In this painting (bought by Count Camondo, the first real connoisseur and collector of Impressionist painters, and a gift from him to the Louvre), we can also see that Degas was not content with selling facial expressions, postures and expressions, but used all the other possible elements of the pictorial structure to convey the psychological content. He has shifted the spatial occupation of the figures towards the upper right corner, so that the dumbfounded contortion of the female figure, thus placed in the centre line, further emphasises and highlights the active anticipation of the teasing man lumbering towards the table. The fragmentation and confusion of the two kinds of spiritual content is emphasized by the jagged zigzagging of the sharp outlines of the table tops, which also serves as an effective intensifier of the range of colours, and here we can best understand Degas”s statement that he is in fact the colourist of the line. The blurred view of the heads of the two figures in the mirror behind them, which resolves the poignant reflections of the picture into a quiet and perhaps pensive resignation, brings the whole composition to a close with a quiet harmony.
Degas”s painting was much criticised at home, and his exhibition in London caused a real scandal. But Degas is, as always, just showing off. He has no pity, no compassion, no approval, no judgment.
It was with such objective indifference that he created his monotype for Maupassant”s narrative, “The Tellierhaus”. As the writer wrote it, the painter depicted the object that outraged the bourgeois pseudo-pride, without raising the whip of moral censure that might have calmed the outrage. All he did was to characterise a situation and environment that was astonishingly distorted with almost unbelievable conviction and realism.
After his return from the United States, Degas made several sketches of ballet dancers. He began painting In the Ballroom, which he completed around 1875-76. On 12 February 1874, the writer Edmond de Goncourt (1822-1896) visited him in his studio and the next day he wrote in his diary: ”I spent yesterday in the studio of a strange painter called Degas. After thematic attempts and detours towards different trends, he fell in love with the present, from which he chose the washerwomen and dancers. It”s not such a bad choice, really.”
Ballet rehearsal on stage
Unique in Degas”s oeuvre, this masterpiece is characterised by precise drawing and a full range of grey colour precision.
At the first Impressionist exhibition, in 1874, Degas presents his work Ballet Rehearsal on Stage. Critics described this monotone picture as a drawing, not a painting. Unique in Degas” oeuvre, this masterpiece is characterised by its precise drawing and the precision of the full range of grey tones, suggesting that the artist produced this work as a precursor to a later engraving. Two similar canvases, though richer in colour, survive in American collections.
For more than a quarter of a century, Degas painted ballet dancers, sketches and sculptures of them. This makes it easier for us to observe the artist”s development. The oil paintings, precisely drawn and elegant in their colours, complement the later pastels, which are saturated with bright colours. As great a painter as he is a great chronicler of life. Importantly, the artist was also a great judge of character and a psychologist.
In 1875 Degas returned to The Ballet Rehearsal and completed it. Once again we are confronted with astonishing vistas. The parquet floor appears to be slanted. The dancers resting on the front plane are seen from behind. In the background, the teacher”s attention is focused on the student inside the room. The realism of the stage suits the composition of the figures captured in different poses, at work and at rest.
The realism of the stage fits well with the composition of figures captured in different poses, at work and at rest.
On the left, the dancer with the yellow bow is sitting on the piano, simply scratching her back. The apprentice with the blue bow on the right is looking at her arm. On the left, the ballet dancer leaning against the wall touches her lips with her fingers and daydreams. Inside the hall, the schoolgirls are standing or sitting with their hands on their hips, hips or arms, waiting their turn. Their frothy skirts glisten in the gentle light in which the theatre hall is bathed. The light highlights the shine of atlas ballet slippers. The play of light and shadow colours the young girls” skin. The role of Professor Jules Perrot (1810-1892), to whom Degas pays his painterly homage, is accentuated by the empty semicircle formed around him on the floor. The teacher”s hand rests on a stick for beating the rhythm. The whole figure dominates the scene and becomes the compositional axis of the painting.
Even though Degas repeatedly and vehemently protested against being considered and called a realist artist, he could not completely shut himself off from the realistic, even veristic (as the pursuit of extreme naturalism was called) aspirations and achievements of the period. For this reason, and because his choice of subject matter did not tend towards the sublime, towards sentimental – if not mawkish – themes and forms, he was often accused of being ”vulgar”. But this only meant that Degas never strayed from the particular path of painting into the world of rhetoric and narrative. For him, the subject, the subject matter, was the subject and object of painting, and he rejected any other than an optical relationship between the painting and its viewer.This is reflected in his painting Dance in Progress. The actual scene is in the upper left corner, where girls in ballet costumes are dancing. One of them is ”spiking” on her toes, while a group of her companions form a circle and watch her movement. The group, painted in ashen, bright colours, is led by a male teacher. In contrast to the graceful figure of the dancers, the ballet master”s person is awkward and tottering, but all we see is his head and his stumpy torso, the rest of his body being covered by a ballet dancer who enters from the side, her dance steps serving only her own pleasure. She is not part of the group ensemble. Despite the varied scene that gives the picture its title, the protagonist is different.
During dance practice (around 1878)
It is not the dancers, nor the master, but the ugly old woman sitting on a kitchen stool, her legs stretched out far in front of her, almost sprawled out. She does not care about the dance scene, nor is she interested in the master”s actions. He is absorbed in the newspaper in his hand. It is clear from this picture that, beyond the optical moments, there is also an ideological content, which is stretched in the contrasts in the picture. The dancing girls and the master instructor”s effort, and the indifferent passivity of the main figure, which is only intensified by the translucently luminous difference between the moving group and the old woman”s dark, starched dress. All of this is framed by the discipline of the interior space, rendered in splendid perspective, and the contrast between the soft gliding of the light from somewhere off to the right and the shadows woven through it, which delicately articulates the structure of the painting.
Dancer on stage (The Star of the Dance) circa 1878
The Dancer on the Stage, depicting Rosita Mauri, is also pastel, but in the monotype technique often used by Degas. A monotype is an impression of an image drawn on a sheet of copper or glass on a sheet of wet paper. Dancer on Stage was shown at the third Impressionist exhibition. The critic Georges Riviére (1855-1943), a friend of Cézanne and Renoir, praised the realism of the painting, while later critics emphasised its supernaturalism. The play of light and the original perspective contribute to the extraordinary effect. From behind the scenes, dancers and a man watch the prima ballerina. With only headless bodies, the attention is entirely focused on the ballet dancer, who bows rapturously to the audience.
In his painting Waiting, painted in 1882, he gives space to two human figures. Whereas in the previous paintings tension, action, and saturated activity gave the depiction its inner and outer content, this small pastel is a setting of languid boredom. Waiting for her scene, the now exhausted dancer leans forward and adjusts something on the toe of her shoe, while her companion bends wearily to keep her balance on the low bench. Even the circular and dividing lines of the bench and floor reflect the mood of anticipation. They are as ready to go as the bored waiting figures.
“Why do you paint dancing girls?” asks Degas of an American collector, Louise Havemeyer, in the late 1990s. “Because only in them do I find the gestures of the ancient Greeks…” replies the artist, who has made no secret of his fascination with ancient sculpture. Degas sketches the poses of the dancers on pink paper in ink. Then he gives them their final form with pastels or oil paints. For “The Dancer Greets the Audience with a Bouquet of Flowers”, Degas chooses pastel, which allows the painter to give the figures presented an unrealistic appearance. The theatrical lighting of the stage distorts the dancer”s face, which resembles an unrealistic monstrous mask. The rapture on the distorted face is mixed with exhaustion, symbolising the contradictions of the theatrical world. The misty tulle skirts without contours contrast with the caricatured lines of the legs in unnatural poses. Degas repeatedly altered some details of the painting: he made the bouquet smaller, lowered the dancer”s left shoulder slightly, lengthened her right leg. These corrections can be seen by illuminating the canvas with an infrared lamp.
Behind the prima ballerina, the ballet company dances the last scene of the performance. The colour of the huge saffron umbrellas is strongly accentuated. The figures in the background were added later in the work. At first only the first dancer was on screen. The painter increased the size of the picture by gluing strips of paper to the right and top. These changes cause the asymmetrical arrangement of the main figure in the picture.
The dancer welcomes the audience with a bouquet of flowers
The theatrical lighting of the stage distorts the dancer”s face, which resembles an unrealistic, monstrous mask.
But the 1880s brought Degas” attention and his brush into a new world of action. Work appeared in his paintings. He painted series of ironworkers and milliners. They were a new scene and a new role for life, movement and light and shadow. And he captured and presented the scenes of this new stage with just as much searching passion, just as much thoughtful characterisation, just as much unemotional objectivity as he did the scenes of the absinth or the ballet.
In the first picture of the Ironing Lady series, begun in 1882, the figure is not bored, but busily engaged with the colourful men”s shirts that are waiting for her, piled up to her left and right. He has painted this one against the light, like the dancer in the photographer”s studio, clearly demonstrating that he was attracted to the elusive painterly tasks of this new subject. In 1884 he painted his Iron Women, in which, despite the motif, he does not depict the tired, worn-out, worn-out worker. Rather, he celebrates the inexhaustible strength that completes a task with a good-tasting yawn as he works. Not long before, he had painted The Hat-Woman, probably the finest of a series of several pieces on a similar subject.
At the end of the 1880s, the nude, the naked female figure, became the main subject of Degas”s art. The strange thing about this is that, apart from the historical paintings of his youth, the nude was almost completely absent from his earlier work. But he did not deny himself and his artistic principles in nude painting. Artists before and around him had painted nudes. But almost all of them needed an excuse to strip the female figure. Mostly it was myths, legends and legends. Even Courbet mostly used the motif of the studio and the bath as a pretext for his nudes, even Manet, the revolutionary Manet, painted Olympia in the exalted isolation of the Renaissance Venuses, and Renoir”s nudes are veiled in sensuality. But Degas never sought an excuse, his gaze always cool.
He almost surprised his models, in the moments when they were naked and sacrificing their vanity – combing their hair, cleaning themselves. He did not look for a beautiful model (as defined by public taste and eroticism), nor did he adjust posture and posture according to “picturesque” criteria and rules. Her nude After Bath is very much a contingent, very much an unsearchable posture. In profile, we see him wiping his raised half-leg. A pose in which no one before Degas would have thought of painting a nude female figure. It is an unusual, restless, technically astonishing picture. In contrast to the smoothness of the pastel technique to which we have become accustomed, the layers of thickly applied chalk are full of colour, and the lines themselves are disordered and agitated. Even if there are some smoother, calmer surfaces on the female figures, they only serve to accentuate the trembling of the rest of the picture.
In the late 1880s, the nude, the naked female figure, became the main subject of Degas”s art:
Even more radically breaking with convention is the composition entitled Woman Combing Her Hair, which presents the corpulent female figure, also not beautiful, not even of proportionate growth, in a daring short cut. She sits with her back to the viewer, in a position of vision, almost disintegrated. Yet this body is not fat, nor is it tumescent. There is an animated primordial force in her ironness. And the painting of the image is downright stunning. Only Renoir, apart from Degas, could have achieved such a dazzling richness of colour on the surface of the human body in Paris at that time. Even he succeeded only a little later, under the influence of Degas, and only with approximate perfection.
The bath bowl is the title of one of the pieces in the series. It depicts an unclothed woman in a “tub”, the special vessel used in the old Parisian neighbourhoods of the last century, where bathrooms were few and far between. The structure of the picture is also reminiscent of a view, with the figure almost facing the light. The modelling with light, the evocation of space, the composition in perspective, the virtuoso drawing and the delicate colours are all masterpieces of the artist. Its powerful effect is enhanced by the fact that the deeply protruding female body fills the surface in an almost diagonal axis. Huysmans, the distinguished writer and forward-looking critic, enthusiastically celebrated the unusually bold painting in the face of the damning judgments of the Marad critics. Today it is one of the Louvre”s jewels.
The pastel Morning Toilet is also one of the pieces in this series. In this picture, also diagonal in structure, a beautifully shaped naked young girl is being combed by a dressed butler in a dress, visible only up to her shoulders. The ashen grains of pastel chalk are stacked in an opalescent iridescence on the unclothed girl”s skin, and this radiance is surrounded by a rainbow of blue-yellow (contrasting yet complementary) colours in the surroundings.
Known as the Baker”s Wife, this painting of the nude back depicts the weightless female body in its cruel reality. The ashen pastel itself, however, is a supreme masterpiece of Degas”s skill. His use of space is exquisite, the modelling of the surface of the back is vivid and full of life, his raised arms are full of movement thanks to the way the light is treated, and his colours are vibrant with freshness in the creamy shades.
In 1862 or 1863, Degas met Édouard Manet (1832-1883) at the Louvre, where he practised copying. The two painters were of similar ages and both came from wealthy families. Their views on art, however, made them far removed from the academicism so popular among the French citizens of the Second Empire. The painting methods and styles of Degas and Manet are close to the manners of the ”new painters” with whom they hang out at the Guerbois café at the foot of Montmartre. This place is considered one of the cradles of the Impressionist movement. Degas plays the role of art theorist. From around 1866, he visited Manet. the painter and his wife often sat as models for Degas.
Portrait of Manet and his wife (1868)
When Manet cut a picture painted by his friend because he felt it did not represent his wife properly, their friendship hung by a thread. After a brief coolness in their relationship, the two artists quickly reconciled. Thanks to Manet, Degas was able to meet Berthe Morisot, who had been married to Édouard”s brother Eugéne since 1874. This young, talented painter”s bright colours and lighthearted style had similarities with the Impressionists” methods. Morisot and Degas belonged to the ”group of the unbroken” and took part in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. Unfortunately, the friends left very early: Édouard in 1883, Eugéne in 1892 and Berthe Morisot three years later. In 1896, Degas (with the help of Monet and Renoir) organised a posthumous exhibition of his works at the picture dealer Durand-Ruel as a token of his appreciation for Morisot. He hung the drawings of his dead girlfriend on the wall with his own hands. Along with Mallarmé and Renoir, Degas looked after Julie, the prematurely orphaned daughter of Berthe Morisot and Eugéne Manet, who was born in 1879.
After the turn of the century, Degas”s reputation spread worldwide, and his paintings were sought after, appreciated and bought. To such an extent that it was almost uncomfortable for the artist himself, a rather reclusive, retiring artist. He was also disturbed by the fact that articles and reviews of his work described him as a revolutionary and innovative artist, even though he considered himself a continuer of 18th-century French painting. Whenever he could, he protested against being called a revolutionary, and expressed his admiration for the painting of previous centuries and for Ingres. But he hardly painted at all during these years. His eyes were getting big. He was constantly in tears, and could only see at close range, at a distance of an inch. He searched his memories and repeated some of his ballet themes. And in the last decade of his life, like returning ghosts, his memory was haunted by even earlier themes. Thus the horsemen, the racecourses and the landscapes, which he now painted in a unified way. Behind the horsemen in training, he has edited a rich mountain landscape of princely beauty, with the peaks glowing violet, like the imaginary landscapes without human figures that filled a brief period of his career.
But his last picture was again a nude. The title and motif were Kneeling, and it proved to be a masterpiece after his own heart, so his friend Vollard, an art dealer, did not sell it, but kept it in his private collection.
But Degas” artistic traits were not limited to painting and drawing.
His plastic work was an interesting rounding off of his life”s work. As early as 1881, he exhibited a one-metre-high sculpture of a ballerina, on which he had the dance costume made from real tulle. Naturally, the public and critics were outraged, partly at the realism and awkwardness of the patterning and movement, and partly at the uninhibited mixing of materials, art and industrial materials. This sculpture seems to have been an isolated experiment, as it was not followed up. But when he could barely see and could no longer paint, like Renoir with gout, he turned to pattern-making as a way of giving form to his ideas. He sculpted statues of horses and little dancing figures. They were sketchy, but with great spatiality and movement. They were only found after his death. We also know of many other brilliant aspects of his spirit. He had a wide and thorough knowledge of literature and music. He could quote the classics of French literature, Corneille, Racine, La Fontaine, and even Pascal and La Rochefoucauld, at length and verbatim, when occasion or necessity demanded. But he was not only a scholar of literature and poetry, he was a poet himself. As Michelangelo once did, he expressed in sonnets the world that occupied his mind and filled his soul. The subject and inspiration for his sonnets came, of course, from the same sources as for his paintings. He sang ballet dancers, girls in hats, models dressing, undressing, bathing and toweling in words as tender and delicate as the colours and forms he used to capture their scenes.
Little dancer before a performance (1880-1881)
He knew some twenty of Paul Valéry”s poems, and in his memoirs he convincingly pointed out the parallels and similarities between the images and poems.
Degas was also a passionate collector of fine art. And not only of the old, but also of contemporary works. Some of his purchases were made in order to help his fellow men in arms in need, without offence or humiliation. But he was also an almost constant visitor to auctions. He was a patient observer of their proceedings, and his cautious and judicious but sacrificial bidding amassed a valuable collection of numerous items. His collection included two paintings by Greco, twenty works by Ingres (oil paintings, sketches, drawings), thirteen paintings by Delacroix, six landscapes by Corot and a half-length portrait of an Italian woman. Cézanne was represented by four paintings, Gauguin by ten, Manet by eight, Van Gogh by three, Pissarro by three and Renoir by one. There are also a large number of drawings, sketches, pastels and watercolours by the same artists, of which the most valuable are the Manet sheets. This collection was completed by some 400 reproductions of graphic works, including Japanese engravings, and the most beautiful works by Haronobu, Hiroshige, Hokusai and Utamaro.
To complete his human qualities, it is worth mentioning that, although he was a very good man and patient, he practised these virtues only outside the world of art. He was harshly critical of his fellow artists, sharp-tongued, frank and outspoken. He was not infrequently capricious, and sometimes even unfair. He criticised Monet and Renoir for their colourfulness. With Manet, he criticised his over-attachment to the model, and with all of them, the fact that they painted outdoors, in front of the subject. Although always upright, his attitude led him to alienate himself from his fellow artists, who also alienated themselves from him. His circle of friends was later limited to a few non-artistic citizens and a few writers. Eventually, he only liked to associate with his close relatives and his art dealer friend Vollard.
Yet there is no doubt that his human and artistic impact was great, both during his life and after his death. His work and his human example have been a source of inspiration for such notable artists as Forain, Mary Cassatt, Toulouse-Lautrec, Valadon, Vuillard and Bonnard. But full recognition was some time after his death. Although some of his works were exhibited at the Luxembourg Gallery and later at the Louvre, it is clear that Manet,
The celebrations of Cézanne and Renoir came earlier than his. Degas was somewhat overshadowed because, in the midst of Impressionism and plein air, and the post-Impressionism that invaded with great feats, his art was felt to be too objectifying and psychologising. But all that changed in one fell swoop when, in 1924, the Orangerie hosted an exhibition to which collectors and museums from Europe and overseas sent their treasured pieces, and for the first time Degas”s entire oeuvre was on show together.
Then the world (especially French art literature) rushed to make up for lost time.
Books and articles appeared one after the other, all of them trying to analyse and praise his person and his art. They published his correspondence, which revealed that Degas was an excellent letter-writer – a big word among the French, who had ennobled the letter as a literary genre. They also published the notes in which he recorded his thoughts on life, people and art in a loose form, interspersed with explanatory drawings. These publications sought to prove that his reticence and sullen manner were more a defence than anything else, and that his conflicts of interest and prejudices were much vindicated by time.
But however they approached Degas”s art, each one tried to make a different point. They celebrated as a great master of drawing the man who was accused by Albert Wolf, the fierce critic who persecuted the Impressionists, of having no idea what drawing was. New and impartial analyses have shown once and for all that Degas is rightly praised as a master of drawing, for each of his paintings, pastels and drawings is almost astonishing in the certainty of its lines. He recorded the most daring foreshortenings, the most agitated bends and fractures of movement with a single drawn line, without repetitive corrections. The magnificent outlines of his figures, of the inanimate objects in the picture, are almost psychological characterisations, but they are far from being decorative in their fluidity and ornamental repetition. Degas”s drawing is not calligraphy, but living life.
Many have analysed the impressionist or non-impressionist nature of his painting. There is no doubt that the painting of his pictures was preceded by sharply ingrained impressions, and that his imagination was captivated from 1870 onwards by motifs that were shifting, moving, and only momentary. To this extent he is an impressionist. But his motifs, his impressions, continued to mature in his memory, to be turned over, pondered over, reduced to their essential elements. His sketches and studies for his pictures show clearly how he progressed, how he elevated an impression that others might see as irrelevant, perhaps unnoticed, into the most powerful expression, and how he sifted out all superfluous elements from his impressions, however loud they might have been at first.
His finished painting always communicates this pure, heightened and frosted state to the viewer, which is why Degas”s last solutions always feel the most perfect, the most effective. But it is this quality that separated his art from that of the Impressionists. The analysis of his pictorial structure and composition is extremely interesting and instructive. His method of image-making led him to conscious, preliminary editing and classification, but his composition was far removed from the teachings, principles and prescriptions of the academic editor. Only very rarely did he place the formal centre of gravity of his pictures in the central axis of the picture space, still less in the picture field. Mostly he composed the most important figure or scene on the side or in one of the upper corners of the picture field, not infrequently at the bottom. He was particularly keen to use this sliding away from the centre when he painted the model with a view, i.e. from above. In his world-famous painting, The Star of the Dance, he glided the figure of the ballerina, lit by bright spotlights and looking down from above like a dewy flower, into the bottom right-hand corner of the picture plane, bowing to her audience. The effect is heightened, heightened, special. It far exceeds the possibilities of the usual centre-frontal and opposite editing, which also proved successful in Renoir”s painting of the same subject.
A special analysis was directed at his subject, because there is no doubt that the world to which he turned his attention was unusually new for his time. The stage, the hustle and bustle of the racecourses, the appearance of cafés, alcoholics, working women, dressing rooms, and ordinary women stripping, extended the world of the subject of painting almost to infinity. All you said about it was that you were looking for colour and movement. He did not add, although the real significance of his efforts lay in the fact that he accepted the colour of anything and the movement of anything, if it aroused his artistic interest.
His search for colour and movement was complemented, even completed, by the way he used light to accentuate and emphasise his colours and elements of movement. This is why plein air, the light of open space, was not his bread and butter. At first he experimented with it, but in his old age he strongly condemned it. He also painted his outdoor pictures in his studio and had unlimited power over the light effects that could be evoked in the interior. In this attitude, he had already had a predecessor, Daumier, who modelled his compositions with great success on the sovereign use of interior light. But Degas went beyond this. He made even richer and more varied use of its possibilities, even adding arbitrary, imaginative elements. He took the audacity of his self-indulgence almost to the extreme in the small-scale landscapes, painted in the manner of colour visions without human figures, which he painted in the 1890s, when his eyes were rapidly deteriorating. Why he painted them at this time, when landscapes were at best an insignificant addition to his figurative paintings, is a fascinating question that has not yet been answered. These darkly glowing paintings are almost a riot of light and colour. They fight with each other. They have nothing to do with the material elements, with reality (The lake, the mountain range, the road through the field). They radiate a kind of astonishing longing. It is as if they are a message from another world. A world where there are no physical ills and where the spirit and imagination reign supreme.
This was the only time Degas abstracted his work from the world he saw. Otherwise, he always stood on the ground of unimagined reality, and for this reason he was often accused of being stimulated only by ugly, ordinary phenomena, and of being a bitter pessimist who wrote caustic satire about the human race. An unbiased examination of his works, however, reveals that they reveal life with deep human feeling, and that it is precisely for this purpose that their creator has embraced the unvarnished elements of life in the free, true and therefore beautiful world of artistic creation.
It was a difficult choice whether to celebrate in Degas the master of the brilliant brush, the ashen colouring, the sovereign handling of light, or the convincing depiction of lightness of movement. After all, each of these played a significant role in his work. Objective analysis tends to show that there are great competitors in the realms of painting, colour and light, but Degas triumphs over all in the representation of light movement.
Degas is now considered worldwide to be one of the greatest artists of the 19th century. The particular brilliance of his oeuvre does not derive from the worldwide fame of his fellow impressionists, the comrades-in-arms of his youth, as was generally believed in the past. Regardless of their affiliation, his works shine with clarity and triumph as the brilliant achievements of an exceptional artist. Even if one has seen one of his major major works only once, one is enriched by a vision of something infinitely subtle, vivid in every part, unconventional, analysed and summarised, which will accompany one for a lifetime.
On 19 December 1912, in a packed room in Paris” world-famous auction hall, paintings by millionaire collector Henri Rouart went under the hammer. The bidding was lively, as the majority of the paintings were by French Impressionist artists, and the prices of these paintings were rising by the day. In the middle of the audience, surrounded by admirers and dressed in old-fashioned clothes, sat a grim old man, his left hand over his eyes, watching the auction. Competing buyers, excitedly outbidding each other, paid prices for works by Daumier, Manet, Monet, Renoir that were touched by the abundance of money before the First World War. But the sensation of the day came from a work by Degas. When his painting, Dancer at the Railing, came up for auction, a frenzy of excitement took over the auction houses. Bids came in, one after the other, and before long the bidding was over a hundred thousand francs. One of the competitors quietly promised five thousand francs more for each bid, until finally the competitors bled and he was awarded the excellent pastel for four hundred and thirty-five thousand francs.
After this event, the gloomy old man, who was Edgar Degas himself, rose from his seat with tears in his eyes, and leaning on one of his attendants, left the room. Those who knew him looked after him in dismay. The next day, journalists approached him for a statement. As Degas had been averse to the publicity of the press all his life, he would only say that the painter of the painting had not been simple-minded when he first sold it, but that the man who had now paid so much for it was obviously weak-minded. Indeed, the purchase price was unheard of. No living French painter had ever been paid so much for a work.
The buyer was rumoured to be a trustee of an American multi-millionaire, who appeared at the auction with unlimited authority. What the tears in the painter”s eyes meant when he experienced such an unprecedented appreciation of one of his works, we certainly do not know. Perhaps he remembered that the genius of the genius is never rewarded by the creator. Perhaps he was remembering his youth, the time when the picture was painted, or perhaps he was stirred by the tangible proof of the world fame that he had justly earned as part of his class.
But in the mind of the author of this modest sketch, the scene he happened to witness personally is unforgettable.
From then on, he constantly sought to create a closer, warmer and more human relationship with Degas” works. How well did he succeed…? Let the lines above bear witness to that.