Edgar Degas - self-portrait photograph

Edgar Degas: his work, his influence

A contemporary account of the work and influence of Degas by the French writer, poet and art critic Séverin Faust (1872-1945), published under the pseudonym Camille Mauclair in 1904.

I have said how vain it is to class artistic temperaments under a title imposed upon them generally by circumstances and dates, rather than by their own free will. The study of Degas will furnish additional proof for it. Classed with the Impressionists, this master participates in their ideas in the sphere of composition, rather than in that of colour. He belongs to them through his modernity and comprehension of character. Only when we come to his quite recent landscapes (1896), can we link him to Monet and Renoir as colourist, and he has been more their friend than their colleague.

Degas is known by the select few, and almost ignored by the public. This is due to several reasons. Degas has never wished to exhibit at the Salons, except, I believe, once or twice at the beginning of his career. He has only shown his works at those special exhibitions arranged by the Impressionists in hired apartments (rue le Peletier, rue Laffitte, Boulevard des Capucines), and at some art-dealers. The art of Degas has never had occasion to shock the public by the exuberance of its colour, because he restricted himself to grey and quiet harmonies. Degas is a modest character, fond of silence and solitude, with a horror of the crowd and of controversies, and almost disinclined to show his works. He is a man of intelligence and ready wit, whose sallies are dreaded; he is almost a misanthrope. His pictures have been gradually sold to foreign countries and dispersed in rich galleries without having been seen by the public. His character is, in short, absolutely opposed to that of Manet, who, though he suffered from criticism, thought it his duty to bid it defiance. Degas’s influence has, however, been considerable, though secretly so, and the young painters have been slowly inspired by his example.

 

Degas - the beggar woman
DEGAS – THE BEGGAR WOMAN

Degas is beyond all a draughtsman of the first order. His spirit is quite classical. He commenced by making admirable copies of the Italian Primitives, notably of Fra Angelico, and the whole first series of his works speaks of that influence: portraits, heads of deep, mat, amber colour, on a ground of black or grey tones, remarkable for a severity of intense style, and for the rare gift of psychological expression. To find the equal of these faces—after having stated their classic descent—one would have to turn to the beautiful things by Ingres, and certainly Degas is, with Ingres, the most learned, the most perfect French draughtsman of the nineteenth century. An affirmation of this nature is made to surprise those who judge Impressionism with preconceived ideas. It is none the less true that, if a series of Degas’s first portraits were collected, the comparison would force itself upon one’s mind irrefutably. In face of the idealist painting of Romanticism, Ingres represented quite clearly the cult of painting for its own sake. His ideas were mediocre, and went scarcely beyond the poor, conventional ideal of the Academy; but his genius was so great, that it made him paint, together with his tedious allegories, some incomparable portraits and nudes. He thought he was serving official Classicism, which still boasts of his name, but in reality he dominated it; and, whilst he was an imitator of Raphael, he was a powerful Realist. The Impressionists admire him as such, and agree with him in banishing from the art of painting all literary imagination, whether it be the tedious mythology of the School, or the historical anecdote of the Romanticists. Degas and Besnard admire Ingres as colossal draughtsman, and, beyond all, as man who, in spite of the limitations of his mind, preserved the clear vision of the mission of his art at a time when art was used for the expression of literary conceptions. Who would have believed it? Yet it is true, and Manet, too, held the same view of Ingres, little as our present academicians may think it! It happens that to-day Impressionism is more akin to Ingres than to Delacroix, just as the young poets are more akin to Racine than to Hugo. They reject the foreign elements, and search, before anything else, for the strict national tradition. Degas follows Ingres and resembles him. He is also reminiscent of the Primitives and of Holbein. There is, in his first period, the somewhat dry and geometrical perfection, the somewhat heavy colour which only serves to strengthen the correctness of the planes. At the Exposition of 1900, there was a Degas which surprised everybody. It was an Interior of a cotton factory in an American town. This small picture was curiously clear: it would be impossible to paint better and with a more accomplished knowledge of the laws of painting. But it was the work of a soulless, emotionless Realist; it was a coloured photograph of unheard-of truth, the mathematical science of which left the beholder cold. This work, which is very old (it dates back to about 1860), gave no idea of what Degas has grown into. It was the work of an unemotional master of technique; only just the infinitely delicate value of the greys and blacks revealed the future master of harmony. One almost might have wished to find a fault in this aggravating perfection. But Degas was not to remain there, and already, about that time, certain portraits of his are elevated by an expression of ardent melancholy, by warm, ivory-like, grave colouring which attracts one’s eye. Before this series one feels the firm will of a very logical, serious, classic spirit who wants to know thoroughly the intimate resources of design, before risking to choose from among them the elements which respond best to his individual nature. If Degas was destined to invent, later on, so personal a style of design that he could be accused of “drawing badly,” this first period of his life is before us, to show the slow maturing of his boldness and how carefully he first proved to himself his knowledge, before venturing upon new things. In art the difficulty is, when one has learnt everything, to forget,—that is, to appear to forget, so as to create one’s own style, and this apparent forgetting cloaks an amalgamation of science with mind. And Degas is one of those patient and reticent men who spend years in arriving at this; he has much in common with Hokusai, the old man “mad with painting,” who at the close of his prodigious life invented arbitrary forms, after having given immortal examples of his interpretation of the real.

Degas - Lesson in the foyer
DEGAS – THE LESSON IN THE FOYER

Degas is also clearly related to Corot, not only in the silvery harmonies of his suave landscapes, but also, and particularly, in his admirable faces whose inestimable power and moving sincerity we have hardly commenced to understand. Degas passed slowly from classicism to modernity. He never liked outbursts of colour; he is by no means an Impressionist from this point of view. As a draughtsman of genius he expresses all by the precision of the planes and values; a grey, a black and some notes of colour suffice for him. This might establish a link between him and Whistler, though he is much less mysterious and diffuse. Whenever Degas plays with colour, it is with the same restraint of his boldness; he never goes to excess in abandoning himself to its charm. He is neither lyrical, nor voluptuous; his energy is cold; his wise spirit affirms soberly the true character of a face or an object.

Since a long time this spirit has moved Degas to revel in the observation of contemporary life. His nature has been that of a patient psychologist, a minute analyst, and also of a bitter ironist. The man is very little known. His friends say that he has an easily ruffled delicacy, a sensibility open to poetry, but jealous of showing its emotion. They say that Degas’s satirical bitterness is the reverse side of a soul wounded by the spectacle of modern morality. One feels this sentiment in his work, where the sharp notation of truth is painful, where the realism is opposed by colouring of a sober distinction, where nothing, not even the portrait of a drab, could be vulgar. Degas has devoted himself to the profound study of certain classes of women, in the state of mind of a philosopher and physiologist, impartially inclined towards life.

His work can be divided into several great series: the race-courses, the ballet-dancers, and the women bathing count among the most important. The race-courses have inspired Degas with numerous pictures. He shows in them a surprising knowledge of the horse. He is one of the most perfect painters of horses who have ever existed. He has caught the most curious and truest actions with infallible sureness of sight. His racecourse scenes are full of vitality and picturesqueness. Against clear skies, and light backgrounds of lawn, indicated with quiet harmony, Degas assembles original groups of horses which one can see moving, hesitating, intensely alive; and nothing could be fresher, gayer and more deliciously pictorial, than the green, red and yellow notes of the jockey’s costumes strewn like flowers over these atmospheric, luminous landscapes, where colours do not clash, but are always gently shimmering, dissolved in uniform clearness. The admirable drawing of horses and men is so precise and seems so simple, that one can only slowly understand the extent of the difficulty overcome, the truth of these attitudes and the nervous delicacy of the execution.

Degas - the dancing lesson (pastel)
DEGAS – THE DANCING LESSON—PASTEL

The dancers go much further still in the expression of Degas’s temperament. They have been studied at the foyer of the Opera and at the rehearsal, sometimes in groups, sometimes isolated. Some pictures which will always count among the masterpieces of the nineteenth century, represent the whole corps de ballet performing on the stage before a dark and empty house. By the feeble light of some lamps the black coats of the stage managers mix themselves with the gauze skirts. Here the draughtsman joins the great colourist: the petticoats of pink or white tulle, the graceful legs covered with flesh-coloured silk, the arms and the shoulders, and the hair crowned with flowers, offer motives of exquisite colour and of a tone of living flowers. But the psychologist does not lose his rights: not only does he amuse himself with noting the special movements of the dancers, but he also notes the anatomical defects. He shows with cruel frankness, with a strange love of modern character, the strong legs, the thin shoulders, and the provoking and vulgar heads of these frequently ugly girls of common origin. With the irony of an entomologist piercing the coloured insect he shows us the disenchanting reality in the sad shadow of the scenes, of these butterflies who dazzle us on the stage. He unveils the reverse side of a dream without, however, caricaturing; he raises even, under the imperfection of the bodies, the animal grace of the organisms; he has the severe beauty of the true. He gives to his groups of ballet-dancers the charming line of garlands and restores to them a harmony in the ensemble, so as to prove that he does not misjudge the charm conferred upon them by rhythm, however defective they may be individually. At other times he devotes himself to the study of their practice. In bare rooms with curtainless windows, in the cold and sad light of the boxes, he passionately draws the dancers learning their steps, reaching high bars with the tips of their toes, forcing themselves into quaint poses in order to make themselves more supple, manoeuvring to the sound of a fiddle scratched by an old teacher—and he leaves us stupefied at the knowledge, the observation, the talent profusely spent on these little pictures. Furthermore there are humorous scenes: ballet-dancers chatting in the dark with habitués of the Opera, others looking at the house through the small opening of the curtain, others re-tying their shoe-laces, and they all are prodigious drawings of movement anatomically as correct as they are unexpected. Degas’s old style of drawing undergoes modification: with the help of slight deformations, accentuations of the modelling and subtle falsifications of the proportions, managed with infinite tact and knowledge, the artist brings forth in relief the important gesture, subordinating to it all the others. He attempts drawing by movement as it is caught by our eyes in life, where they do not state the proportions, but first of all the gesture which strikes them. In these drawings by Degas all the lines follow the impulsion of the thought. What one sees first, is the movement transmitted to the members by the will. The active part of the body is more carefully studied than the rest, which is indicated by bold foreshortenings, placed in the second plane, and apparently only serves to throw into relief the raised arm or leg. This is no longer merely exact, it is true; it is a superior degree of truth.

Degas - the dancers
DEGAS – THE DANCERS

These pictures of dancers are psychologic documents of great value. The physical and moral atmosphere of these surroundings is called forth by a master. Such and such a figure or attitude tells us more about Parisian life than a whole novel, and Degas has been lavish of his intellect and his philosophy of bitter scepticism. But they are also marvellous pictorial studies which, in spite of the special, anecdotal subjects, rise to the level of grand painting through sheer power of draughtsmanship and charm of tone. Degas has the special quality of giving the precise sensation of the third dimension. The atmosphere circulates round his figures; you walk round them; you see them in their real plane, and they present themselves in a thousand unexpected arrangements. Degas is undoubtedly the one man of his age who has most contributed towards infusing new life into the representation of human figures: in this respect his pictures resemble no one else’s. The same qualities will be found in his series of women bathing. These interiors, where the actions of the bathers are caught amidst the stuffs, flowered cushions, linen, sponges and tubs, are sharp visions of modernity. Degas observes here, with the tenacious perfection of his talent, the slightest shiver of the flesh refreshed by cold water. His masterly drawing follows the most delicate inflexion of the muscles and suggests the nervous system under the skin. He observes with extraordinary subtlety the awkwardness of the nude being at a time when nudity is no longer accustomed to show itself, and this true nudity is in strong contrast to that of the academicians. One might say of Degas that he has the disease of truth, if the necessity of truth were not health itself! These bodies are still marked with the impressions of the garments; the movements remain those of a clothed being which is only nude as an exception. The painter notices beauty, but he looks for it particularly in the profound characterisation of the types which he studies, and his pastels have the massiveness and the sombre style of bronze. He has also painted café-scenes, prostitutes and supers, with a mocking and sad energy; he has even amused himself with painting washerwomen, to translate the movements of the women of the people. And his colour with its pearly whites, subdued blues and delicate greys, always elevates everything he does, and confers upon him a distinctive style.

Finally, about 1896, Degas has revealed himself as a dreamy landscapist. His recent landscapes are symphonies in colours of strange harmony and hallucinations of rare tones, resembling music rather than painting. It is perhaps in these pictures that he has revealed certain dreams hitherto jealously hidden.

And now I must speak of his technique. It is very singular and varied, and one of the most complicated in existence. In his first works, which are apparently as simple as Corot’s, he does not employ the process of colour-spots. But many of the works in his second manner are a combination of drawing, painting and pastel. He has invented a kind of engraving mixed with wash-drawing, pastel crayon crushed with brushes of special pattern. Here one can find again his meticulous spirit. He has many of the qualities of the scientist; he is as much chemist as painter. It has been said of him, that he was a great artist of the decadence. This is materially inexact, since his qualities of draughtsmanship are those of a superb Classicist, and his colouring of very pure taste. But the spirit of his work, his love of exact detail, his exaggerated psychological refinement, are certainly the signs of an extremely alert intellect who regards life prosaically and with a lassitude and disenchantment which are only consoled by the passion for truth. Certain water-colours of his heightened by pastel, and certain landscapes, are somewhat disconcerting through the preciousness of his method; others are surprisingly spontaneous. All his work has an undercurrent of thought. In short, this Realist is almost a mystic. He has observed a limited section of humanity, but what he has seen has not been seen so profoundly by anybody else.

Degas - horses in the meadows
DEGAS – HORSES IN THE MEADOWS

Degas has exercised an occult, but very serious, influence. He has lived alone, without pupils and almost without friends; the only pupils one might speak of are the caricaturist Forain, who has painted many small pictures inspired by him, and the excellent American lady-artist Miss Mary Cassatt. But all modern draughtsmen have been taught a lesson by his painting: Renouard, Toulouse-Lautrec and Steinlen have been impressed by it, and the young generation considers Degas as a master. And that is also the unexpressed idea of the academicians, and especially of those who have sufficient talent to be able to appreciate all the science and power of such an art. The writer of this book happened one day to mention Degas’s name before a member of the Institute. “What!” exclaimed he, “you know him? Why didn’t you speak to me about him?” And when he received the reply, that I did not consider Degas to be an agreeable topic for him, the illustrious official answered vivaciously, “But do you think I am a fool, and that I do not know that Degas is one of the greatest draughtsmen who have ever lived?”—”Why, then, my dear sir, has he never been received at the Salons, and not even been decorated at the age of sixty-five?”—”Ah,” replied the Academician a little angrily, “that is another matter!”

Degas despises glory. It is believed that he has by him a number of canvases which will have to be burnt after his death in accordance with his will. He is a man who has loved his art like a mistress, with jealous passion, and has sacrificed to it all that other artists—enthusiasts even—are accustomed to reserve for their personal interest. Degas, the incomparable pastellist, the faultless draughtsman, the bitter, satirical, pessimistic genius, is an isolated phenomenon in his period, a grand creator, unattached to his time. The painters and the select few among art-lovers know what considerable force there is in him. Though almost latent as yet, it will reveal itself brilliantly, when an opportunity arises for bringing together the vast quantity of his work. As is the case with Manet, though in a different sense, his powerful classic qualities will become most prominent in this ordeal, and this classicism has never abandoned him in his audacities. To Degas is due a new method of observation in drawing. He will have been the first to study the relation between the moving lines of a living being and the immovable lines of the scene which serves as its setting; the first, also, to define drawing, not as a graphic science, but as the valuation of the third dimension, and thus to apply to painting the principles hitherto reserved for sculpture. Finally, he will be counted among the great analysts. His vision, tenacious, intense, and sombre, stimulates thought: across what appears to be the most immediate and even the most vulgar reality it reaches a grand, artistic style; it states profoundly the facts of life, it condenses a little the human soul: and this will suffice to secure for Degas an important place in his epoch, a little apart from Impressionism. Without noise, and through the sheer charm of his originality, he has contributed his share towards undermining the false doctrines of academic art before the painters, as Manet has undermined them before the public.

Source:

“The French Impressionists (1860-1900)”, Chapter IV, Camille Mauclair, translated by P G Konody from the original book titled “L’Impressionnisme : son histoire, son esthétique, ses maîtres”, 1904