Jane Munro, Degas: A Passion for Perfection, Yale University Press, 2017, 272pp, 250 col./mono illus., hb, £40, ISBN 978 0 300 22823 6
Daphne Barbour & Suzanne Quillen Lomax (eds.), Facture: Conservation, Science, Art History, Volume 3: Degas, National Gallery of Art, distr. Yale University Press, 2017, 196pp, fully illus., pb, £50, ISBN 978 0 300 23011 6
To mark the centenary of the death of Degas, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge is holding an exhibition of his works (closes 14 January 2018), which will subsequently tour to Denver Art Museum (18 February to 20 May 2018). This is a review of the catalogue of that exhibition. Compared to the blockbuster shows of Degas in recent years, this is an intimate affair. It combines work from Cambridge and Denver with a few loans from other collections. Cambridge purchased a number of pieces from the posthumous auctions of Degas’s studio, work selected by John Maynard Keynes.
Items in the exhibition are divided into rough groups: Degas and England, copies of the masters, monotypes, landscapes, nudes, dancers and sculpture. There is a section of the catalogue and exhibition given over to Degas’s influence on following British artists. Degas made a handful of visits to England but unlike his youthful stay in Italy (admittedly a longer period) these made no discernible impression on his art. Degas rarely mentioned his English sojourns. Like his predecessor Gericault, Degas must have been impressed by the British passion for horse racing but whether it left much of an impression beyond that is an open question.
Although Degas did not win a scholarship to the French School in Rome, he had enough of an income to tour independently. He travelled with Moreau and they sometimes copied the same paintings and depicted each other. Degas spent time in Naples where he had family. Degas was the most academically gifted and inclined of the Impressionists and revered Ingres, himself a devotee of the Old Masters. The young Degas modelled himself on Ingres, using the same materials, spending hundreds of hours drawing, learning traditional techniques and acquiring the skills expected of an academic painter. This included long sessions copying paintings and sculpture in museums, including Greek and Roman sculpture, Donatello, Veronese and others. The exhibition includes copies by Ingres, showing parallels between the two painters.
Some of the most unfamiliar works are those actually typical to painters on a grand tour of Italy. The small landscape sketches in oils are acutely observed and sensitively painted views of Naples, Rome and other locales. As was common, these are painted on paper for convenience and later pasted on board for presentation. This was an easily portable medium though it is discouraged because of the technique’s unsuitability on both optical and conservation terms. However, the expediency was used for works that were not intended to be public and were only created as supporting studio material to be transcribed or adapted to more permanent works.
Degas never much cared for landscape. As for working en plein air, Degas derided painters who did so. Allegedly he had a good memory for landscape and produced his landscapes in monotype from memory in the studio. His adaptation of landscape as body suggests that forms rather than light or colour were a preoccupation and that he was willing to adapt in order to transform actual landscapes into more anthropomorphic images. One wonders whether those who claimed Degas had a good memory for landscape actually compared art to specific places. Most likely Degas did have a good visual memory but clearly the important thing was how the memory of the view seemed and how it might be adapted to suit the artist’s purpose, not the veracity of the art compared to the source.
(Image: Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Italian Landscape seen through an Arch, c.1856–9, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 36.7 x 32 cm, Howard and Nancy Marks)
So these landscape sketches, executed en situ, are anomalies in Degas’s practice as a whole but completely congruent with a young artist of the time. Degas used these views of legendary sites of history and culture as sources to be recorded the way he assiduously drew paintings of the Old Masters in the museums of Italy. Degas tended to use landscape as mere background for a subject wholly other and which was his real interest. In early paintings such as Scene from the Middle Ages it is obvious that Degas had no engagement with landscape and would have dispensed with it altogether if he had had the chance. (And he eventually would.) It was just a short step from Young Spartans Exercising (1860), with its perfunctory landscape, to Portrait of Mlle Fiocre in the ballet “La Source” (c. 1867-8), with its artificial landscape in the form of a painted backdrop. The play of artifice and verisimilitude allowed Degas to turn his limitation into a feature. He no longer had to be concerned about “getting things right” when flatness and lack of integration became an absolutely truthful presentation of stage backdrops. He would have entirely dispensed with landscape painting if he had not had to use views as part of his paintings of horses and jockeys. One wonders if Degas’s deteriorating eyesight played any part in his rejection of landscape as a subject for his mature art. The artist, his long vision seriously impaired, simply could not see well enough to paint them. It seems likely that physical limitations accorded with his artistic preoccupations rather than the other way round.
On the evidence of these oil sketches Degas was a competent landscapist in the line of Corot and Ingres. Watercolour studies of rocks are also included.
Monotype printing, where a design is drawn in ink on a metal plate before being run through a press with paper which transfers ink to paper, was one of Degas’s principal means of artistic expression. His monotypes outnumber his prints of other types. Degas often reprinted from the same plate a second impression, which is always lighter than the first print. Degas would usually modify the second impression with pastel, gouache and body colour. These alterations sometimes became so involved and extensive that additions entirely cover the underlying print. The atmosphere, emphasis and appearance of print could be radically changed, as was apparent in the recent MoMA exhibition, New York which included comparative examples of first and second impression monotypes. (For my full review of that exhibition see “Degas monotypes”, The Burlington Magazine, vol. CLVIII, no. 1360, pp. 589-90; July 2016.)
Subjects of monotypes on display include landscapes, horse-and-jockey and street scene. A comparative print by VLN Lepic is included to show how free and expressive the prints of the French C19th monotype revival could be. French monotypes of this period share in common the approach of expressive inking of etchings, wherein plates were inked in highly individual and expressive ways which altered the appearance of the original design and introduced new elements. This made each impression as individual as a unique drawing, quite at variance with the usual practice of printers attempting to make an edition of an etching as uniform and neutral as possible.
Nudes, dancers and sculpture are related in Degas’s art. Dancers were often drawn nude – either from life or imagined – before being used in paintings and the nudes of women washing and drying often include difficult, peculiar and transient poses that echo those of dancers either in actions or resting and stretching. Degas figurines in wire, clay, Plastiline and coloured beeswax were often of dancers in motion. Some poses were so unstable that Degas had to introduce props to keep the figures upright. Other sculptures were of horses. Britain has few really good Degas pastels of nude figures, so the exhibition has usefully drawn upon American loans. One can see many poses reoccurring in different mediums and figures repeated in pictures. Degas used tracing paper to experiment with positioning, tracing and reversing. He also used tracing paper as the ground for large-scale finished pastels, an unconventional choice which has caused some conservation issues for collectors. Using a slick surface for a powdery medium is problematic; Degas relied on applying extensive layers of fixative throughout the drawing process to keep the pastel in position. Using water sometimes turned the pastel to a paste which he would manipulate with brushes, creating a fusion of wet and dry techniques.
The sculptures are discussed more extensively in Facture: Conservation, Science, Art History, Volume 3: Degas, published by the National Gallery of Art, featuring works from its unique holding of original Degas statuettes.
(Image: Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Arabesque over the Right Leg, Left Arm in Front, First Study, c.1882–95, coloured wax over a commercially prefabricated metal wire armature, attached to a wooden base, 23.5 x 13.7 x 27.5 cm, © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)
The posthumous repairing, editioning and distribution of bronze casts of Degas is involved and covers a multitude of archival, legal and moral issues about the reproduction of sculpture. These questions are of great financial importance considering the value of the pieces and the proliferation of fakes (or at least “unauthorised copies”). Degas considered casting some of his figures but never did; he exhibited only one sculpture during his lifetime, the famous Little Dancer aged Fourteen (1878-81), at the 1881 Impressionist exhibition. It was Degas’s heirs who decided to edition the statues in bronze and sell them.
The generously sized illustrations in the Cambridge catalogue allow us to get a good feeling for the originals. Both Facture and the Cambridge catalogue include x-rays which display the armature and internal components of the originals. Degas’s gimcrack, improvisatory approach to sculpture is apparent in evidence of hasty repairs, scraps of cloth and cork used as bulk and numerous breakages. Degas was apparently serious about his sculptural practice but treated the objects themselves in a rather casual manner. Extensive repairs were needed to many of the figures before they could be cast and some figures were just a jumble of fragments. It is fascinating to see the nails and wire holding the figures to their wooden bases and all the other touches of the artist which are obscured in the bronze casts.
There is debate about how finished the statues and the paintings are. Degas’s art is a difficult to assess in terms of finish. He left some works unfinished, exhibited art that seemed incomplete, revised finished work and wanted to “re-touch” sold pictures in private collectors (often to disastrous results). For discussion on that point, the bronzes and possible restorer intervention in a pastel, see my discussion of Facture on ArtWatch UK’s website here: [link to be added later]
For the general reader A Passion for Perfection is a good overview of Degas’s output, with new observations on his themes and techniques. Facture is an essential publication for scholars and collectors of Degas’s art.
18 October 2017