10 things you didn’t know about Degas

By | September 9, 2016

greenjacket-1856With the centenary of Edgar Degas’s death approaching next year, and the hugely successful exhibition “Degas: A New Vision” running till the end of this month, this daring French painter deserves our attention – for a few reasons!

While there are many primary accounts of Degas’s, work and beliefs, it has been a pleasure to compile a little list of things you may not know about Degas here. As my own research into Degas the artist reveals more details about his life, it provides me with better insight into Degas the man. And that’s what I’d like to share here:

(1)  Young Edgar lost his mother when he was 13 years old. He was the eldest of 5 children, and had family in Italy and the United States. His love of art was encouraged and nurtured by his father, who often took him to the Louvre to see the paintings of the old masters.

(2)  Even during his lifetime, Degas faces criticism of misogyny – a trait that prevailed into twentieth century. In fact, only 20-30 years ago it was commonplace in some institutions to teach their students that Degas was a misogynist. This harsh name was almost stated as a fact, and it was not until the late 20th century that arguments for Degas’s interest in realism challenged the misogynist views. (See the writings of Norma Broude as an example.) Degas himself never bothered to challenge or respond to these claims – maybe putting the focus into his work instead of into petty rumours. Personally, I find it hard to believe that a man who did not like women spent his long career painting and sculpting them from every possible angle! Not to mention that Degas assisted some prominent female artists to establish themselves.

(3)  Degas designed his own frames and defended his frames! Degas’s desire to be true to his art and to control its presentation meant that he designed frames for his pastel images and oil paintings. In fact, Degas was one of the most energetic and inventive artists of the time when it came to original artist-designed frames. Few of them survive as they were removed as quickly as they were mounted. Today the question of original frames is a tricky subject, with conservators aiming to respect the artist’s choices. A frequently noted incident involved Degas’s visit to a friend’s house, where he noticed his painting (recently purchased) reframed with a gilded surround. Degas, furious at disrespect for his artistic choices, took the painting off the wall, removed it from the frame and left! (See the personal accounts of Ambroise Vollard, one of leading dealers of French contemporary art of the time.)

(4)  Degas never married. This detail probably did not help the myths of misogyny. In personal accounts during his later life he did state that he wished he had made himself a family. He felt that it would have interfered with his work and disrupted his focus. Thus he remained a bachelor – all the more lonely as his career progressed.

(5)  He was not quite an Impressionist. While often associated with the Impressionist movement, Degas abhorred outdoor painting. Instead he painted indoors, and in artificial light. He repeated his subjects over and over again, which is why now we have repeated motifs of leaning dancers, or bathers drying their feet, or multiple versions of his sculptures. Even his landscapes were painted from memory in the studio.

(6)  Degas disliked scandal. Impressionist exhibitions went against the traditions of academic art. Degas was one of the founders of the group, and showed his work at almost every exhibition. His involvement coincided with his father’s death and having to deal with family debts, leaving the artist dependent on his art for income. He did not like the scandal created by the exhibitions, or publicity sought by his colleagues. Perhaps it was his dislike of scandals that also caused him to ignore the criticisms of misogyny. But the combination of his dislike of scandal with his conflicts with his colleagues suggests that his rather private man was ready to furiously defend his artistic choices.

(7)  Degas’s work spanned a number of styles and subjects. Yet this does not mean that he was a superficial artist. On the contrary, his hard work and persistent production of art demonstrates his commitment to growth as an artist. About a third of his oeuvre is dedicated to ballet. Other subjects (with many, many examples) are bathing women, social scenes of cafés and theatres, brothel scenes, race courses, jockeys, horses, portraits, interior scenes, and landscapes. The attention he paid to mechanics of the body is worthy of note – particularly in relation to his later works in ballet, bathers and horse races.

(8)  A huge influence on Degas was from Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. “Study lines, draw lots of lines, either from memory or nature” is the famous advice the Neoclassical painter gave young Degas. Perhaps fuelled by this advice from one of his idols, Degas repeatedly worked on scenes/subjects, believing that each should be painted hundreds of times.

(9)  Failing eyesight. Degas was afraid of his failing eyesight (who wouldn’t be?), and was concerned how it would affect his art. Some critics believe that the roughness evident in his later works can be attributed to his weakening eyes. Others associate it with a change in style – seems equally appropriated given how much Degas’s work actually changed throughout his career.

(10) Degas’s range of mediums covered just about everything that was available to artists at the time! He painted in oils for the Paris Salon, produced hundreds of pastels of bathers and dancers, charcoal, drawing, sculpture, and even photography! And he excelled in all of them. How many artists can we say that about in any time period?

If you’d like to experience Degas and his work, NGV’s current exhibition “Degas: A New Vision” presents over 200 works as part of its Winter Masterpieces series, combined with special events run throughout the season.

You can read my review of the exhibition here.

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