A Passion for Craft
The distinctive genius of Edgar Degas
Degas, A New Vision, the Edgar Degas retrospective exhibition, underway until January 16, 2017 at the Houston Museum of Fine Art is an astounding study of an artist’s commitment to the process of creating art.
The exhibition – the largest to be held in the United States in thirty years – was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, and Art Exhibitions Australia. Houston is the only American stop on the show’s tour. The exhibit shows how the French painter, very much a part of the mid-19th century Paris art scene, turned the rules upside down, working and reworking earlier compositions during his mature years. Craft became as important as the acute observations of contemporary life early in the artist’s career.
Degas’s well known themes – working women, nude bathers, the physicality of ballet, horse racing, pastels, sculpture and examples of his brief involvement with photography – are included in the exhibit which presents some two hundred works laid out in ten large chronological galleries. Nearly all of the works include labels with well-written texts, adding add to the appreciation of Degas’s significant contribution to modern art.
Degas (1834-1917) was born in Paris, the son of mediocre banker, who loved the arts. His extended family had roots in Italy and America, specifically New Orleans. Edgar enrolled in a prestigious high school, where he studied the classics. On weekends, he and his father visited distinguished art collections.
Although he wanted him to be a lawyer, Degas’s father allowed his son to take private art lessons. Degas studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Although, he never completed his studies, an introduction to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres had a significant influence on Degas’s commitment to both drawing and portraiture. He met the artist while copying Old Masters on display in the Louvre.
Like many French painters, Degas studied art in Rome. He also spent time in New Orleans, where he noted a painful sensitivity to light. Degas’s poor eyesight haunted him throughout his life, but he continued to pursue his art.
After his trip to Rome, Degas set up a new studio in the 9th arrondissement in Paris, his home for the rest of his life. He continued to copy the Old Masters while working on large history paintings, suitable submissions to the Paris Salon, where most French painters displayed their works.
In 1865, Degas abandoned history painting. Perhaps, he felt that he would get a better reception at the Salon if he presented genre scenes and portraits. More important, Degas became passionate about presenting modern life, which became the core of his artistic endeavors for the remainder of his career.
Degas was an active participant in the Impressionist Exhibitions in Paris from 1874 to 1876. While his colleagues – Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley – all worked out of doors, determined to capture the ephemeral impressions of light, Degas worked in the studio using artificial light. His world was illuminated by oil and gas lamps, electric lights, and theatrical lighting. Degas also worked with pencil, chalk, charcoal, gouache, watercolor and pastel while his contemporaries painted. Indeed, curator Henri Loyrette, involved in organizing the exhibition, described Degas as first and foremost a draftsman.
As his art progressed, Degas would depict the gritty nature of ballet dancers, backstage. His brothel scenes, although displaying sexual tension, seem to depict women at work, similar to women handling laundry. His nudes are not in classical poses but caught in the moment, fragmentary not posed, possibly prepared to move yet again. In Degas’s hands, the unresolved angles of these nudes begs the question: is there another angle to explore? As the artist put it: “There must always be some mystery left.”
Because his works remain contradictory, ambiguous and open-ended, in-progress and never complete, his art is described as a precursor to modern art. In this exhibit, the viewer experiences an artist’s singled minded determination to make something novel and significant: “a proper idea, not of what you are doing now, but of what you may do one day.” Throughout his life, Edgar Degas never gave up that quest, a pursuit that influenced countless artists who followed.