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No Impressionist was more innovative than Edgar Degas. Oblique glimpses of dancers in limelight, candid vignettes of brothel mores, and roughshod runs over respectable standards of finish still provide grist to students of Degas, whether in the library or studio. At the same time, the grounding of his art in expertise at drawing the nude sets him apart as the most traditional of the Impressionist group. Thus, his discomfort with being called an Impressionist, after Degas’s associates adopted the name derisively coined in Louis Leroy’s satirical review of the 1874 exhibition of the Société anonyme des artistes peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs, etc. With Claude Monet, Pierre-August Renoir, Berthe Morisot, and Camille Pissarro, Degas shared a commitment to modern subjects; at the time of their first group show, little affinity in practice linked Degas to these painters, who, themselves, hardly constituted a common stylistic front.
More complex yet was Degas’s relationship to the profession bracketed between, at ground level, the crowd of student copyists elbowing for easel space at the Louvre and, at zenith, the Académie des Beaux-Arts chaired for life in the Institut de France across the Pont des Arts. Degas’s devotion to the legacy of the most august member of that bejowled cohort, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, had its legendary origin in a meeting between novice and superstar in the year an honorary Ingres retrospective was featured at the Exposition Universelle of 1855. The advice of Ingres (whose motto, hung above his studio door, was “drawing is the probity of art”): “Draw lines . . . lots of lines, from nature and from memory” (quoted by Anne Roquebert in Degas and the Nude, 13).
That this counsel hit home was recently demonstrated by Degas and the Nude at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from the taut contour of pale académies in hard pencil or chalk, to the soft, pastel edges of bathers. Degas’s admiration for Ingres—the epitome of excellence in draftsmanship—was given point by the inclusion of the latter’s Angelica Saved by Ruggiero (1819–39) as a source for the Scene of War in the Middle Ages (1863–65). Accepted by the jury of the Salon of 1865, Degas’s sadistic painting was received with an indifference matching the attitude of the armed assailants deigning to enact violence against women.
That critical silence, amid the babble of the Parisian Salon reviews, boded ill for Degas’s stake in the professional trajectory coveted by French artists. Aspiration toward government purchases and Salon medals demanded training at the government art school, the École des Beaux-Arts. There, instruction focused on mastery of the nude figure. This skill was requisite to victory in the competition for the Prix de Rome, which glittered before young men clocking untold hours of daylight before naked models and plaster casts of ancient sculpture. Initially, this seemed the course set by the young Degas. Enrolled, in the spring of 1855, at the École des Beaux-Arts as a pupil of Louis Lamothe (himself an Ingres student), Degas soon recoiled from the homogeneity stamped upon his classmates. As was the case with Théodore Géricault, family wealth permitted Degas to bypass the Prix de Rome; his departure from the École was followed by two long sojourns in Italy (1856–59), which, as for his Romantic predecessor, nurtured a fiercely independent embrace of the national artistic heritage.
The fertile paradox within Degas’s art was elegantly set forth by Degas and the Nude. In accord with their topic, the curators, George T. M. Shackelford and Xavier Rey, were boldly traditional. Attuned to correspondence between subject matter and style, they engaged in that unapologetic connoisseurship, which, in the Anglo-American academy, has languished on the endangered species list since the mid-1980s. In the catalogue’s introduction, Shackelford and Rey state:
In contradistinction to much of what has been written in recent decades about Degas’s bathers, but in full awareness of other points of view, the authors have chosen not to give precedence to the view that Degas’s bathers—specifically those of the 1870s and 1880s—must be construed as straightforward depictions of women of lower socio-economic station, most often prostitutes. Nor do the authors subscribe to the view that a female model, the subject of a work of art, because viewed by and recorded by a male artist, should perforce be the subject of a sexual transgression, however remote. (8)
The dissidence here is refreshing. The cutting edge of rebel notions, which in the late twentieth century offered tonic alternatives to the drudgery of reverential monograph and myopic catalogue raisonné, has been blunted by decades of dissertations, and, for this reviewer, by the dossiers sprinting across our graduate admissions deadline each January 15.
Only from a robust oeuvre, such as that of Degas, can be fashioned a retrospective—let alone a thematic exhibition—without risk of harm to reputation. A benefit of the thematic purview is attention to idiosyncratic works (the Scene of War in the Middle Ages, for example) grouped with antecedents and preparatory studies. Those less familiar paintings are vulnerable to upstaging in a full-blown retrospective, such as the Degas blockbuster of 1988–89. That the comparison may not convey the intended point makes the opportunity no less welcome. Viewing Degas’s Scene of War beside plates from Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War (1810–20) brought salience to the nonchalance of the medieval war criminals. To this early work, Degas lent the emotional distance with which he would imbue nonviolent subjects throughout his career. While detachment is alien to an encounter with the atrocities witnessed, or imagined, by Goya, it does recall the courtly grace with which Vittore Carpaccio choreographed the Huns’ massacre of Ursula and her virgin host. Also receiving due attention was a generous selection of bronzes, posthumously cast from the studio contents, in which the geriatric hands of the artist modeled bodily torsion and bulk outside the range of his feeble eyes. Here, as in the late drawings—comparable in stretched pose and rough facture—physical limitation enforces economy of means. We owe this insight to George Heard Hamilton, who discerned this strength in the late work of Monet and Paul Cézanne, as well as that of Degas (George Heard Hamilton, “The Dying of the Light: The Late Work of Degas, Monet, and Cézanne,” in Aspects of Monet: A Symposium on the Artist’s Life and Times, John Rewald and Frances Weitzenhoffer, eds., New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1984, 218–41).
Only an artist who thrived on self-imposed discipline could have found such room for invention in the nude. The sensitive hanging emphasized the repetitive grind of trial and error necessary to master an art form as unforgiving as the sonnet. Austerity was congenial to the reticent Degas. What he could do with limited means is writ large in the contrast between the artful smudges of the brothel monotypes and the seductively tactile particularity of Henri Gervex’s Rolla (1878), in which a dashingly handsome young debauchee, on the brink of suicide, strikes a flattering three-quarter pose to gaze at the supine flesh of the sleeping prostitute on which he has spent his last coin. Too sensational for inclusion in the Salon of 1878 (in spite of a previous medal, which would have permitted Gervex to bypass the jury), the canvas is enhanced by a still life of intimate apparel recommended to the younger artist by Degas, who never would have so accessorized one of his own. Amid so many small, visually dense, tonal works, the sightline to this glamorous, Vegas-worthy morning after was a delight.
Persuaded of the centrality of the nude to Degas, this visitor readily accepted the inclusion of two startling pastel landscapes. As indicated by a wall text, these topographies are but metamorphosed female anatomy. In the reshuffling of the oeuvre by Shackelford and Rey, the brothel monotypes—recently viewed in Massachusetts at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute’s Picasso Looks at Degas (June 13–September 12, 2010 [click here for review])—revealed fewer secrets than the atmospheric bather monotypes, for example, the Nude Woman Combing Her Hair (1879–83), reproduced on the back cover of the catalogue. Having arrived at this point in the exhibition, my college mentor, John Hunisak, drew my attention to the daringly abrupt slashes of illumination and to an unexpected affinity to Odilon Redon—the artist who dismissed Impressionism as a “low-vaulted ceiling.” Such surprises signal an exhibition worth its salt.
Jonathan P. Ribner
Associate Professor, Department of History of Art and Architecture, Boston University
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