Still, for all the complaints lodged against the original of the now-standard museum shop trinket, Degas, unlike his fellow painters, the French Impressionists, always enjoyed steady support. One such defender, Nina de Villard, said of “The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer,” “The work that is misunderstood today will one day be in a museum looked upon with respect as the first formulation of a new art.”
De Villard displayed more foresight than her fellow critics. A cast of “The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer” – along with more than 300 oil paintings, watercolors, works on papers and prints – are currently enjoying the limelight as the inaugural exhibition of the Metropolitan Musem of Art’s new Tisch Galleries. The exhibit, the first of Degas’ work in 50 years, will open Tuesday and run through Jan. 8. The range of subjects includes not only Degas’ famous ballet dancers, but also paintings of horse races, laundries, brothels, cafes and his lesser-known nudes.
Although Degas is often associated with the Impressionists, helped them organize their shows and participated in their exhibitions, his art clearly stands apart. His works are the product of carefully made sketches in which he altered reality as he saw fit to create the maximum visual as well as psychological interest. The Impressionists instead worked directly from life, with little preparatory work, to capture fleeting moments. As a result, the viewer of most Impressionist works remains a casual observer, while the viewer of Degas’ is often drawn in by the psychological tensions, most evident in his early pieces, and the subtle formal aspects of his later works.
Degas’ work grows out of the long tradition of art history. He is often quoted as telling the Irish writer George Moore that his art was the product of the study of the Old Masters.
Degas met the neo-Classicist artist J. A. D. Ingres in 1855, when a friend of his father’s, M. Edouard Valpincon, refused to lend Ingres’ “Bather” to a large show of Ingres’ works. Valpincon feared the possibility of a fire. When Degas heard this, he was furious. “You cannot refuse Monsieur Ingres’ request!” he exclaimed. Valpincon relented and took the pieces as well as Degas to Ingres. Ingres advised the young artist to “draw lines . . . many lines, after nature and from memory.” Degas took the advice to heart. Ingres is present in all of Degas’ lines – crisp, sensitive and with little shading – as is apparent in his studies for his first masterpiece, “The Bellelli Family.”
Degas went to Italy – the prerequisite trip for any artist of his day – in 1856 and reached Florence in 1858. There, he began a painting of his aunt Laura’s family, the Bellellis. Degas’ composition is bold and differs from Ingres in the unconventional pose used and and the narrative elements in the work’s background. Three of the family members – the wife, one of the two girls and the husband – look away from the viewer. Only the standing girl stares out of the canvas in typical Ingres fashion. The figures wear dark clothing, signifying the family’s mourning of Degas’ grandfather, represented in the drawing hanging on the wall. The black outfit also hides Laura’s pregnancy; but what is not hidden is the tension between her and her husband. Her sad face and Ingres-like features appealed to Degas and clearly his sympathy for the family’s discord lies with his aunt. The husband is shown in an awkward and unflattering pose, isolated and separate from both his wife and children.
Although Degas continued to paint such portraits throughout most of his life, he found them boring and beneath his ambitions. He turned to producing history paintings, of which his first entry into the Paris Salon, “The Misfortunes of the City of Orleans,” was one. But such works were not Degas’ strength. The best that can be said of them is that he introduced to the genre contemporary figures to replace the tradition use of Greek ideals.
By 1865, Degas had given up historical paintings as well as any other prevailing academic subject matter to become a Realist, a painter of modern life. The revolutionary French artist Edgar Manet, whom he probably met in 1862 while copying a Velasquez at the Louvre, is in part responsible for Degas’ switch. Their friendship began in part because of their similar social backgrounds as well as Manet’s regard, like Degas’, for the tradition of art. Degas used to say of Manet that he is “the most mannered painter in the world, never making a brushstroke without first thinking of the Old Masters.”
More important for Degas’ growth than the effect of Manet’s friendship, though, was the discovery in the 1860s of Japanese prints and the invention of snapshot photography. Degaswas attracted to Japanese art not by its exoticism, but by its use of line and contours. Here, he recognized, is a draftsman’s medium. He was also struck by the Japanese use of perspective and the use of silhouetted or truncated objects in the foreground to partly obscure the background. Such use of cropped figures and objects, Degas happily found, corresponded to the snapshot image and the way things were seen in reality.
“Woman Leaning Near a Vase of Flowers” reflects Degas’ new influences. The woman is shoved to the extreme right of the work. Her hand is held against her chin in a pose reminiscent of a device used by Ingres to accentuate the delicate curves of the sitter’s chin and to elicit charm and elegance; however, Degas’s woman uses it to conceal her beauty. A large bouquet of flowers dominates the remaining canvas and little description of a background is apparent.Degas has succeeded in suggesting a scene happened upon, a scene plucked from contemporary life.
Degas then began a series of paintings of Parisian laundresses, followed shortly thereafter by his famous paintings of ballet dancers and jockeys (which not only reflected the French interest in horse racing pictures, but also presented Degas with another opportunity to depict a classical subject – the horse – in a contemporary manner). Degas’ powers of observation were at their keenest. Fellow painters claimed to have been able to learn the art of pressing from his works of laundry girls. His understanding of the dancers’ movements was likewise remarkable, but his observations were not derived from painting directly from life.
By the mid-1870s, Degas began to experiment with his materials. He became increasingly interested in the effects achieved with monotypes, which became some of his most original and greatest contributions to art. He also began to sculpt, as the “Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer” demonstrates, and to create works on paper with pastel. His friend James Tissot believed that Degas turned to pastel because of his failing eyesight. (Degas eventually went blind.) But whether that is the reason for his switch is debatable; what is not is that pastel opened up the world of color for Degas. Always seeing himself as a draftsman, Degas developed a marvelous sense of color that finally was allowed expression and would in his last works merge with his masterful line.
Degas also became more inventive with his compositions, with the angles at which he posed his figures and with the point of view from which his works were presented. The brilliantly staged “Dancers at Their Toillette” depicts two dancers and their chaperones seen from high above. One of the girls is so close to the picture plane that her forehead and arm appear chopped off at the right side of the piece and her left foot runs off the page at the bottom. The floor recedes dramatically to the left, indicated by a decrease in the size of the second dancer and the abrupt diagonal line of the floor’s boards. Such dizzying indications of perspective and odd croppings lend the work a disturbing and uncomfortable vantage point, thrusting the viewer into the role of voyeur.
Complex compositional arrangements, which already with “Dancers at Their Toilette” had become quite a bit simplier, and Degas’ interest in subtle psychological nuances were superseded in his final works by his interest in the physicality of his subjects. His pictures became simplified. The number of figures in a work was reduced, heads became generalized and features nearly nonexistent. Degas returned to studying the body – almost exclusively the female body – with an almost clinical coldness. He told Moore, “I show them (women) deprived of their airs and affections reduced to the level of animals cleaning themselves.”
Figures such as those in “After the Bath” primarily display a real sense of weight, mass and physicalness. The strain of the pose of “After the Bath,” which consists of a young woman oddly arched over the back of a chaise longue, is slightly exaggerated to express the figure’s awkward position. In other works, the arms – long tired of posing – hang slightly longer than believable.
In all these works, definite indications of features and details are suppressed. A general color – usually an unnatural color – envelopes the form and lines are strategically placed to indicate the forms’ contours. These nudes, some of Degas’ greatest works, with all their sensuous color, nearly abstract simplicity and strange croppings – break through to the emergence of modern art.