Innovative Impressions: Prints by Cassatt, Degas and Pissarro

Brooklyn_Cassatt La Toilette_39107

[Image: Mary Cassatt (American, 1844–1926), Woman Bathing (La Toilette) (c. 1890–91), Brooklyn Museum, Museum Collection Fund, 39.107]

Innovative Impressions: Prints by Cassatt, Degas, and Pissarro at Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma (9 June-9 September 2018) examines the three most prominent printmaking painters of the Impressionist movement: Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and Camille Pissarro (1855-1903). The exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

This exhibition shows us the complex interplay of collaboration and rivalry that influenced the printmaking of three leading painters of the age. All three artists trained in etching early in their careers then set aside the medium to concentrate on painting. At the time, etching was considered a component of a rounded education for professional artists and also pursued by hobbyists, thus it was a widespread skill. In the 1860s there was a revival in etching in France, with the Société des Aquafortistes was established in 1862. Publishers encouraged artist-printmakers to produce etchings which they then marketed to fine-art collectors in competition with lithographs.

Etchings by Ludovic-Napoléon Lepic (1839-1889) show us the work of a critical figure in Nineteenth Century French printmaking. Lepic is best known for eau-forte mobile, which is the creative inking of plates that – in the case of landscape designs – adds atmosphere, changes weather and lighting conditions and can even turn day to night. This is not pure etching, wherein the plate is inked uniformly throughout an edition and which remains faithful to the etcher’s original intentions, but instead it is a hybrid of etching and monotype, with impressions varying widely. While atmospheric inking can contribute to the impact of a line etching, it can go too far and become a game or a distraction, covering up for the inadequacies of the etching. Lepic was hugely influential among artists and master printers. Lepic’s practice was enriching but also impoverishing, causing printmakers to make etchings that were deliberately incomplete or ambiguous, which allowed the application of Lepic’s eau-forte mobile technique. (Compare this to the example of filmmaking. Some directors rely so heavily on computer-generated imagery, dubbing, digital editing and post-production effects that they become slapdash in the filming and directing of actors, which is the essence of good live-action films.) There is a viable case to be made that Lepic’s influence was more deleterious than beneficial.

Another significant figure was etcher Félix Bracquemond (1833-1914). The exhibition includes three of the ten states of Bracquemond’s masterful reproductive etching of Holbein’s portrait of Erasmus. Bracquemond joined the Impressionist movement, though his art was often not close stylistically to the most common Impressionist approach. He was a brilliant technician but it is clear why he is both less known and considered more of an associate of the Impressionists than an essential member of the movement. (To read my review mentioning Marie Bracquemond, the Impressionist painter married to him, click here.)

Catalogue essays direct us to consider notions of authorship and purity in fine art.

Richard R. Brettell discusses the collaboration between Corot, Dutilleux, Grandguillaume, Desavary and the Cuvelier brothers in Arras. Together they developed the cliché-verre printing technique, producing many prints for which the authorship is shared or uncertain. This risks giving the impression that the working relationship of Cassatt, Degas and Pissarro was closer than it actually was in 1879, though Bretell’s point is taken. The Impressionists occasionally worked in in pairs and groups in painting expeditions, arranging group exhibitions and preparing the Le Jour et la nuit journal. Bretell points out that collaboration, criticism and sharing of techniques and ideas was a significant part of the careers of many artists who are commonly considered in monographic isolation. Often in the catalogue text we encounter mentions that one of the artists gave advice to another on printing or actually helped to print certain proofs. They exchanged and purchased each other’s prints.

Many critics of the era condemned the finish of Impressionist art. (The very name Impressionism came from a critic’s slur about the supposed incomplete condition of a Monet painting.) The sequential nature of printmaking means that we have a chance to consider when a work of art is finished. It also raises the issue of how much importance we attach to a work of art and how much to the creation of that art. It is very common to read in catalogues more about the preparation for, development and revision of, a work of art than about the finished work itself.

In 1879 work began on Le Jour et la nuit which was intended to be a journal featuring the prints of Cassatt, Degas, Pissarro, Bracquemond and Caillebotte, Raffaëlli, Forain and Rouart. With little accompanying text, it would have been essentially a bound version of the print portfolios of loose sheets published at the time. The journal did not appear in 1880 partly (according to a contemporary) because Degas was late with his contribution. The journal was never published but a number of etchings were prepared for it and have been identified, including Cassatt’s In the Opera Box, Degas’s Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery and Pissarro’s Wooded Landscape at the Hermitage, Pontoise. Pissarro’s print (based on a painting) seems to have been straightforward. Cassatt made three versions of her print in a number of states, dramatically altering the lighting using aquatint. Degas developed his print to completion then developed a second print which used the figures in different position and setting in a distinctive vertical format. This print – Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Paintings Gallery – was also translated into painting by the artist. It was perhaps the extended revision of the second print through 20 states that delayed Le Jour et la nuit.

Cleveland_Degas Cassatt at Louvre_1947459

 

[Image: Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917), Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Paintings Gallery (1879–80), Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Leonard C. Hanna Jr., 1947.459]

Sarah Lees writes that it is likely the Le Jour et la nuit prints were exhibited at the Impressionist exhibition of 1880. “It is even more revealing that each artist chose to show more than one state of the prints, much as Bracquemond had done in 1874 with his Erasmus. In this way they not only highlighted the significance of the creative process, but also undercut notions about the primacy of the finished, final work.” She notes that it is possible to show an etching plate in different states the way it is not possible to with a unique oil painting.

The exhibition includes many prints from before and after the Le Jour et la nuit project. Some of the highlights of the selection are Cassatt’s colour aquatints. The lines are drypoint – scratches which hold ink with a characteristic emphatic blur – and the colour shading is in speckled aquatint, with sparing use of soft-ground etching. This is a rare technique. Included are the most famous Cassatt prints The Letter (1990-1) and La Toilette (1890-1). They are exquisite and justifiably praised. The influence of Japanese colour woodblock prints (exhibited in Paris in 1890) is obvious but not distractingly so. Cassatt used adventurous colouring and the editions display wide variation in colouring. Unfortunately, Cassatt’s drawing sometimes went awry and a number of her prints are irretrievably marred by obvious and painful flaws in anatomy. In such clear, sparse and (relatively) realistic works, these faults gravely damage the prints.

Pissarro also made prints in aquatint and drypoint. The results are uneven. The weather in Rain Effect (1879) was an afterthought. The torrential rain makes the scene of two figures sitting and standing in a field seem ridiculous. Woman Emptying a Wheelbarrow (1880) is a lot better and may have been destined for Le Jour et la nuit.

R-20100818-0052.jpg

[Image: Camille Pissarro (French, 1830–1903), Woman Emptying a Wheelbarrow (1880), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Rosenwald Collection, 1943.3.7311]

Pissarro and Degas experimented by proofing Pissarro’s Twilight with Haystacks (1879) in different colours. Examples in black, red and blue are reproduced in the catalogue. Degas preferred to add colour to his prints in pastel and paint, using the print (or counterproof) as the framework for a unique work of art. Included in the exhibition are three rare landscape monotypes that Degas made by painting dilute colour oil paint on a metal plate and running this through a press with paper. The exhibition also includes some monotypes of bathing nudes and brothel scenes.

Pissarro is not well known as a printmaker and his contributions are uneven. The colour etchings and monotypes from the 1890s of peasants and landscapes verge on the crude. The use of heavy outlines (perhaps derived from Cloissonisme) is unpleasant and works against the artist’s long experience in building forms in colour without drawn outlines. The overpowering outlines and casual draughtsmanship, combined with the unpleasant effects of oil on paper, have produced rather ugly prints. A late lithograph in monochrome is very good. The loose wash effects and emphatic shadow create drama and solidity that seem close to Romantic art or the wash drawings of Poussin.

It is heartening to encounter such a scrupulously researched art-historical exhibition, especially regarding prints, a medium often passed over as minor. Particular commendation is due for the meticulous cataloguing of technical data (including plate and paper size) and provenance, information which is often lacking in exhibition catalogues.

Sarah Lees (ed.) and Richard R. Bretell, Innovative Impressions: Prints by Cassatt, Degas, and Pissarro, Philbrook Museum of Art/Hirmer, 2018, hardback, 130pp, 100 col. illus., €39.90, ISBN 978 3 7774 2978 6

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

 

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Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900

 In the Studio (oil on canvas)

[Image: Marie Bashkirtseff (Ukrainian, 18581884), In the Studio (1881), oil on canvas, 60 5/8 x 73 1/4 in. Dnipropetrovsk State Art Museum, Ukraine, KH-4234. Photo: Dnipropetrovsk/Bridgeman Images. Courtesy American Federation of Arts]

“Recent gains in women’s participation in the arts now demands an assessment of those who have paved the way – both women artists who struggled to establish careers in art and art historians who reinvented the critical language to accommodate them.”

So states curator Laurence Madeline in her essay introducing a current exhibition on women artists. Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900 (the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 9 June-3 September 2018; touring from Denver Art Museum and Speed Art Museum) gathers almost 90 paintings by 37 female artists from 11 countries, all of whom worked or trained in Paris. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The period examined by this exhibition and catalogue was a turbulent and rich one. Despite the rise of Naturalism, Realism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Symbolism, the Salon dominated public reception of art and academic painting was a significant proportion of the art produced and consumed. The studio system of training, the École des beaux-arts and Prix de Rome were important in the training of artists and this presented women with a number of hurdles to becoming full-time artists. Women were not admitted to the École des beaux-arts until 1897 and had limited choices in the studios they could study at. Académie Julian became a favourite not just of women students but adventurous male students and a large number of the most successful artists of that period and the immediately following era studied there. In 1881 the Union des Femmes Peintres et Sculpteurs was founded to promote and exhibit women.

Statistical analysis in this catalogue indicates that female participation in the annual Salon ranged from below 10% to as high as 20% in a period when women as full-time professional artists were a rarity. This shows that women artists were recognised publicly in proportion to their participation in the fine-art field, even though it seems their art was less likely to have been awarded prizes and bought by the state. Such advantages naturally went to the most established artists, who were predominantly male. (Footnote 1)

Seeing a gathering of pictures by some unknown women artists seems to reinforce the impression that women are (or were) unduly discriminated against. Yet the art of twenty times that number of forgotten male artists from the period could have been assembled – with each of those artists as good as the women artists here. Go through any academy store room and you will encounter fine pictures by unknown artists, male and female. There simply is not enough wall space, book pages and public attention to cause these artists to be remembered. History bestows oblivion upon legions of capable professionals, regardless of gender. Fame is exceptional and, by definition, most artists are destined for obscurity. Nowadays, critics, curators and historians trawl archives and store rooms specifically in search of forgotten women artists to promote. Rescuing women artists from obscurity is an outcome of – and justification for – much Feminist art history over the last 50 years. Today there is no prejudice against women artists in the West. Women are rapidly becoming the majority of arts administrators and art historians. Today, among professionals and critics, there is an in-built favouritism towards women artists. Not a week goes by without a press release heralding the posthumous revival of a forgotten woman artist.

So, how good is the art exhibited here? Much of it is very good.

A number of artists need no introduction. Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzalès and Marie Bracquemond were respected and popular artists in the Impressionist circle, though the latter (who was married to acclaimed printmaker Félix Bracquemond and exhibited with the Impressionists) has faded from attention, partly due to her early retirement from art. Morisot, Cassatt and Gonzalès are presented fairly here, with first-class pieces.

Morisot_The_Cherry_Tree

[Image: Berthe Morisot (French, 18411895), The Cherry Tree (1891), oil on canvas, 57 5/8 x 35 in. Collection of Bruce and Robbi Toll; Photo: CAPEHART Photography. Courtesy American Federation of Arts]

A good case is made for Marie Bracquemond, with her Impressionist paintings of women and domestic life matching the quality of her more famous colleagues. Her reputation is likely to rise.

Naturalist painter of rural scenes Rosa Bonheur was celebrated in her lifetime as the equal of male painters. Bonheur was a phenomenon, becoming famous and being granted special privileges. Her art sold for high prices. Her paintings of farm animals were accurate and have an impressive physical presence but such art has become unfashionable and it is hard to see her name becoming common currency again. Fellow Naturalist painter Marie Bashkirtseff was very talented but one wonders if she would have left any more of a significant mark had she not died at the age of 25 in 1884. The adeptly executed In the Studio (1881) is one of the few large-scale paintings she painted in her short career. The Bastien-Lapage style of Naturalism she adopted was already verging on the fusty and sentimental by 1884. Was she capable of innovating or was she only a superior adherent of Cosmopolitan Realism?

Bastien-Lepage’s Naturalism became the dominant painting style in Scandinavia from his Salon success of 1878 until well into the Twentieth Century, long after his death. His approach was to paint scenes of rural life, including mild social commentary about the lives of working people. The doctrine of Naturalism through local colour, studying from life and painting at least studies en plein air won him legions of followers in France and Northern Europe. In this exhibition, nearly all the Nordic painters are indebted to him. Lady Elizabeth Butler’s patriotic scenes are more aligned to academic salon painting. Annie Louisa Swynnerton’s standing female nude is in the beaux-arts tradition, influenced by Pre-Raphaelitism. Amélie Beaury-Saurel’s pastel portrait of a young woman smoking and drinking coffee is bold, accomplished and lively. It is a very fine picture.

Grand claims for Finnish painter Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) are not borne out on the evidence presented here. There is a concise and beautiful painting of an interior (The Door (1884)); the only strong contrast in the picture is the glow of light coming through gaps around a closed door. However, the other pictures by her are weak stuff – a Botticelli copy, soft-focus social realism, a Whistlerian portrait. A strikingly modern self-portrait in a manner similar to Kitaj is not included, as it falls outside the dates for exhibited work.

Lowstadt_Chadwick_ Beach Parasol, Brittany (Portrait of Amanda Sidwall)

[Image: Emma Löwstädt-Chadwick (Swedish, 18551932), Beach Parasol, Brittany (Portrait of Amanda Sidwall) (1880), oil on panel, 11 7/16 x 19 11/16 in. Private collection, Stockholm; Photo: Lars Engelhardt. Courtesy American Federation of Arts]

There are idiosyncrasies in curation that are puzzling. The curators state that they deliberately avoided so-called typically feminine subjects such as flower paintings and portraits, yet included are maternities, domestic interiors and conversation pieces featuring women – all subjects that were particularly close to women artists’ hearts and the centres of their artistic production. Some of the artists are ones who visited or trained in Paris rather than living there for significant lengths of time. Paula Modersohn-Becker should not have been included.

The catalogue includes informative essays by Jane R. Becker on Marie Bracquemond and by Vibeke Waallann Hansen on the Nordic painters. Impressionist scholar Richard Kendall writes about the careers of the female Impressionists. A valuable biographical section presents data about each artist.

Bridget Alsdorf makes some unfounded judgements in her catalogue essay. She contends that in Manet’s portrait of Eva Gonzalès painting at her easel, Manet appropriates Gonzalès’s painting  of flowers on her easel as “his own” by painting it in his own manner. Gonzalès was Manet’s student and her style is very indebted to his. Breaking the stylistic continuity within the portrait by transcribing a Gonzales painting idiomatically correctly would have been completely inconsistent within the aesthetic and practice of Manet. Alsdorf asserts that Orpen included the portrait of Gonzalès in Orpen’s own Homage to Manet (1909) in a way that “is perfectly ironic, a further travesty of Gonzalès’s already awkward image as a femme peintre”. Orpen was including the most celebrated and publicly available painting by Manet situated in the British Isles in 1909. There is nothing ironic about the inclusion. Women artists suffered inequality in this period. Inventing slights only distracts attention from the actual difficulties they faced.

There is some high quality art which we benefit from encountering, often for the first time, but are some of these artists unfairly overlooked? Not really. Bonheur and Bashkirtseff are scarcely more obscure to today’s gallery-goers than Bastien-Lepage and painters of the Barbizon or Hague Schools; Cassatt and Morisot are mentioned in every publication on Impressionism. What about the lesser-known ones? Schjerfbeck is capable but inconsistent; Virginie Demont-Breton is a competent Salon painter; Kitty Kielland is a skilful Norwegian landscape painter. Are these artists good? Yes. Are they better than the (male) artists who are more well-known? No, though some are equal in competence.

Yet there are hundreds of shadowy others at the elbows of Schjerfbeck and Killand, also ready to claim a seat in Parnassus.

On the opening of the Musée fin-de-siècle in Brussels, I was astonished to encounter the paintings of Hippolyte Boulenger (1837-1874). After 20 years of studying and writing about art of the period, I counted myself fairly familiar with the painting of the era, yet here was this painter who was the equal of Corot, who painted with the energy of Courbet and I had never heard his name. His landscapes are deeply immersive, full of bold brushwork and underpinned by acute observation, yet today not even one Belgian in a thousand would recognise his name. His art would have fitted into this exhibition – he deserves a monographic exhibition – yet there is no academic mileage in reviving the reputations of Belgian male painters. No cultural connoisseur or social historian will ever become indignant about the unjust neglect of Hippolyte Boulenger. Yet I would rather have hanging on my wall a Boulenger marine painting in preference to anything painted by Turner or Constable.

The canon is a limited field and it necessarily excludes the overwhelming majority of all art ever produced. Just as the newspaper acclaim and jury prizes of past eras do not secure a place in the canon for dazzling Salon painters, so too the perorations of art historians today do not permanently alter the course of history. The best approach is to look at art frankly (and sceptically) and assess bodies of work as honestly as possible. On that basis, there is plenty in Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900 which is appealing and surprising and we can be grateful to have encountered it.

 

Laurence Madeline et al, Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900, American Federation of Arts/Yale University Press, 2018, paperback, 288pp, 150 col. illus., $45, ISBN 978 1 885444 45 5

(1) Prizes, awards and state purchases are not distributed equally according to the merit of exhibited art. It is in part dependent on the status of the artist and that artist’s reputation.

If famous artist A wins 10 prizes in a career, less famous artist B does not get a proportionate 8 prizes (equivalent to 80% of artist A’s recognition) but more likely 1 or 2 prizes in a career. There is a limit to the number of prizes available. Members of the public or prize juries may recognise a limited number artist names. The difference in recognition between being number 1 and 2 on that list is small; the difference between being number 19 and 20 on that list may be large. Similarly, a graph of all living artists’ income per annum would be flat at zero and near-zero for almost the entire X axis showing the low income of the majority, grow slightly for the small number who make a living income and then reach a sheer wall for the tiny number of super-rich artists. This is a form of winner-take-all situation.

Thus, prizes are awarded in a disproportionate manner. If the top ten most celebrated artists in any given cohort are male then the remaining 90 artists – regardless of whether they are male or female –who are less famous will receive 90% or even 50% of the prizes but about 10% between them due to the winner-take-all economy.

See: Hans Abbing, Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts, 2014, Amsterdam University Press, 367pp, ISBN 978 9 0530565650

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

Degas: Themes and Finish

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.

Italian Landscape seen through an Arch, by Degas

(Image: Edgar Degas (18341917), 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.

Arabesque over the Right Leg, Left Arm in Front, by Degas

(Image: Edgar Degas (18341917), Arabesque over the Right Leg, Left Arm in Front, First Study, c.188295coloured 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: http://artwatch.org.uk/degas-and-the-problem-of-finish/

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