Memories of Degas

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Memories of Degas brings together in one affordable, small volume two short memoirs of Edgar Degas (1834-1917).

George Moore (1852-1933) was an Irish writer and well-known figure in the bohemian art circles of Paris, London and Dublin. He met leading artists and artists; he was painted by Manet. Moore’s memoir was published in The Burlington Magazine in 1890. When it was republished after Degas’s death, it included a new introduction, which sadly does not add much. Moore evocatively described Degas’s studio. “There are neither Turkey carpets nor Japanese screens […] Only at the further end, where the artist works, is there daylight. In the perennial gloom and dust the vast canvases of his youth are piled up in formidable barricades. Great wheels belonging to lithographic presses – lithography was for a time one of Degas’s avocations – suggest a printing-office. There is much decaying sculpture – dancing-girls modelled in red wax, some dressed in muslin skirts, strange dolls – dolls if you will, but dolls modelled by a man of genius.”

Degas was angered by Moore’s indiscretion regarding his private life, resulting in him refusing to directly communicate with Moore for the rest of his life. (“I forgot Degas’s warning he would never speak to anyone who wrote about him.”) On the first occasion, Degas was flattered and amused by Moore’s depiction of Degas in his novel Confessions of a Young Man (1888). When Moore’s 1890 article about Degas, the artist was less forgiving. Moore’s comments about his family finances were transgressions upon the artist’s control of his self-image. Only later did Degas admit there was a possibility of them meeting again but by then the friendship had lapsed irreparably.

We learn Degas deep respect for (and attachment to) Manet and his adulation of Ingres. (Degas was a fanatical art collector and bought art by Ingres. When his financial situation altered, he had to force himself to slow down his buying.) He also damns Bastien-Lepage as “the Bouguereau of the modern movement”. Moore writes of Degas’s technical flexibility and his changing materials throughout the development of a single picture.

The Munich-born British artist Walter Sickert (1860-1942) is a critical link between Degas and the British art world. Sickert was not only Degas’s closest British supporter and fellow artist, he was – through his highly regarded art criticism – Degas’s leading public advocate in Great Britain. Sickert could explain Degas’s originality and defend him from derision as a painter of decadence or incompetence. Sickert was an extremely gifted painter who instinctively realised how radical Degas’s art was.

In his 1918 article, Sickert explains he met the master in 1883 through a letter of introduction from Whistler. Sickert spoke fluent French and spent a considerable period of his life in France, principally Dieppe and Paris. In 1885, the pair spent time together over a summer in Dieppe. Sickert appeared in a group-portrait pastel, drawn by Degas during that summer. They met again frequently in Paris, with the younger man visiting him in his studio and attending exhibitions together, including the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889. Among the quotes is the famous “On donne l’idée du vrai avec le faux.” (One gives the effect of truth through falsehood.) Both Moore and Sickert remember Degas saying he wanted to present the female nude as if she were seen through a keyhole.

Anna Gruetzner provides a short informative introduction, discussing the relationships between the two writers and their subject. The illustrations are numerous and appropriate, conveniently illustrating the texts, which comprise valuable primary sources on Degas.

George Moore, Walter Sickert, Anna Gruetzner (Introduction), Memories of Degas, Pallas Athene, 2020, paperback, 112pp, fully col. illus., £9.99, ISBN 978 1 843 68 1748 (A version of this is also published by Getty Publications, USA)


© 2020 Alexander Adams

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