06
Sep
16

Exhibition: ‘Degas: A New Vision’ at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne Part 1

Exhibition dates: 24th June – 18th September 2016

 

A magnificent exhibition of the work of Edgar Degas at NGV International. So nice to see a blockbuster without papered walls or patterned floors, an exhibition that just allows the work to speak for itself. Review to follow in part 2 of the posting.

“Il y a quelque chose plus terrible encore que le bourgeois – c’est l’homme qui nous singe [There’s something even more awful than the bourgeois – it’s the man who apes us]”

Edgar Degas as noted down by Oscar Wilde when he met him in 1883.

Marcus

.
Many thankx to the National Gallery of Victoria for allowing me to publish the artwork and photographs in the posting. All installation photographs © Marcus Bunyan and the National Gallery of Victoria. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Degas: A New Vision' at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne

 

Installation view of the exhibition Degas: A New Vision at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne with at right, Female nude

 

Edgar Degas. 'Female nude' 1905

 

Edgar Degas
Female nude
1905
Charcoal and brown pastel
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
Gift of Mr Noah Torno, 2003

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Degas: A New Vision' at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne

 

Installation view of the exhibition Degas: A New Vision at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne

 

Edgar Degas. 'Thérèse De Gas' c. 1863

 

Edgar Degas
Thérèse De Gas
c. 1863
Oil on canvas
89.5 x 66.7 cm
Musée d’Orsay, Paris (RF 2650)
Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay)

 

 

At the start of the 1860s Degas’s family still acted as his primary models for portraiture. In early 1863 he painted this engagement portrait of his sister Thérèse. He shows her as a young woman all dressed up to go out; in fact, to go abroad. Timidly she show off her engagement ring before a view of Naples, her face serene, the sky blue with future happiness. She was to move to Naples after her marriage in Paris on 11 April 1863 to her first cousin Edmondo Morbilli, the son of Rose Morbilli, the sister of Degas’s father.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Degas: A New Vision' at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne

 

Installation view of the exhibition Degas: A New Vision at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne with, in the centre, Degas’s father listening to Lorenzo Pagans playing the guitar

 

Edgar Degas. 'Degas's father listening to Lorenzo Pagans playing the guitar' after 1874

 

Edgar Degas
Degas’s father listening to Lorenzo Pagans playing the guitar
after 1874
Oil on canvas
81.6 x 65.1 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Bequest of John T. Spaulding
© 2016 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Degas: A New Vision' at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne

 

Edgar Degas
Edgar Degas: Self-portrait (two of four states) (installation view)
1857
Etching and drypoint
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, H.O.
Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H.O. Havemeyer, 1929
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Edgar Degas. 'Edgar Degas: Self-portrait' (third of four states) 1857

 

Edgar Degas. 'Edgar Degas: Self-portrait' (third of four states) 1857

 

Edgar Degas
Edgar Degas: Self-portrait (third of four states) (detail)
1857
Etching and drypoint
23.0 x 14.4 cm (plate), 34.9 x 25.7 cm (sheet),
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, H.O.
Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H.O. Havemeyer, 1929
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

 

While studying in Rome as a young man degas became increasingly interested in printmaking and also in the portraits of Rembrandt, which he first saw in publication by the French art writer Charles Blanc. The effects of light and shadow in Rembrandt’s portraits inspired Degas to undertake a series of self-portraits including this, his only self-portrait etching, which he produced in four separate states. He experimented with altering the appearance of these etchings through leaving varying amounts of ink on the plate before printing. Degas was very pleased with this exercise, and gave away examples of these trials to his friends.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Degas: A New Vision' at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne

 

Installation view of the exhibition Degas: A New Vision at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne including at left, Thérèse De Gas (c. 1855-56)

 

Traces of Ingres’s influence on the young Degas are clearly visible here in the clean, firm contours delineating the face of his hen fifteen-year-old sister Thérèse De Gas. Offsetting the crisp edge drawn along her cheek i a subtle modelling of the chin and cheeks produced with smudged pencil, recalling the sfumato (soft or blurred) effects of Leonardo da Vinci.

 

Edgar Degas. 'Thérèse De Gas' c. 1855-56

 

Edgar Degas
Thérèse De Gas
c. 1855-56
Black crayon and graphite on brown paper
32.0 x 28.4 cm (sheet)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Julia Knight Fox Fund
© 2016 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 

Edgar Degas. 'René De Gas' 1855

 

Edgar Degas
René De Gas (installation view)
1855
Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts
Purchased 1935

 

 

Degas’s family members were his principal models in the early years of his career. His first art lessons were undertaken with Louis Lamothe, a loyal follower of the Neoclassical master Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. This portrait of his younger brother René, the family darling, betrays Degas’s resolve to follow in the footsteps of his mentor Ingres, whose work was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in September 1854. Degas visited the elderly master of Neoclassical portraiture in 1855, the year the he undertook this portrait. Preparatory drawings show that degas radically simplified his composition, eliminating a complex interior setting in favour of a dramatic dark background reminiscent of the Mannerist Old Master, Angolo Bronzino.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Degas: A New Vision' at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne

Installation view of the exhibition 'Degas: A New Vision' at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne

 

Installation views of the exhibition Degas: A New Vision at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne with at left, Mendiante romaine [Roman beggar women]

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Degas: A New Vision' at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne

 

Edgar Degas
Mendiante romaine [Roman beggar women] (installation view)
1857
Oil on canvas
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
Purchased 1960
Lent by Birmingham Museums Trust on behalf of Birmingham City Council

 

 

This work is both a portrait and a genre scene, but it leans towards the former in that there is little trace of narrative, local colour or exotic reference. Degas details the marks of old age, fatigue and poverty – wrinkled skin, gnarled hands, the motley garments of a pauper – along with the faded colours that he recorded in a contemporary notebook: ‘figure of an old woman / very tanned skin, white veil / cloak thrown over / shoulder faded brown / faded free dress / a little like the back wall / of my room / yellow apron’

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Degas: A New Vision' at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne

 

Installation views of the exhibition Degas: A New Vision at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne with at centre, Family portrait also called The Bellelli family 1867

 

Edgar Degas. 'Family portrait' also called 'The Bellelli family' 1867

 

Edgar Degas
Family portrait also called The Bellelli family (installation view)
1867
Oil on canvas
201 x 249.5 cm
Musée d’Orsay, Paris (RF 2210)
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

 

Edgar Degas. 'Family portrait' also called 'The Bellelli family' 1867

 

Edgar Degas
Family portrait also called The Bellelli family
1867
Oil on canvas
201 x 249.5 cm
Musée d’Orsay, Paris (RF 2210)
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

 

 

In 1858-59, during an Italian sojourn, Degas stayed in Florence for nine months with his aunt Laure and her husband, Baron Gennaro Bellelli. There he embarked on the largest painting he would ever create – a monumental portrait of Laure, Gennaro and their daughters, Giovanna and Giulia. A study of marital discontent presented on the scale of a history painting, Family portrait, also called The Bellelli family, reflected Degas’ recent study of the dignified sitters in the Flemish master Anthony van Dyck’s early seventeenth-century portraits, which he had seen in Genoa. He worked on this painting continuously after his return to Paris, completing a final version of it for the Paris Salon of 1867. Alive to the unhappy marital dynamics between Laure and her husband, a political exile from Naples, Degas showed his morose relatives in their rented apartment, physically separated from one another by items of furniture and Giovanna (on the left) and Giulia. Although expecting her third child, Laure Bellelli (la Baronne) stands proud and aloof, in full mourning for her recently deceased father (Degas’ grandfather) Hilaire Degas, whose portrait hangs on the wall behind her. Meanwhile, her husband, conspicuously not in mourning, sits in comfort by the fire. Adults and children are compressed into a shallow plane, an airless, static vacuum. The uneasy ambience is accentuated by Giulia’s absent leg and the family dog, shown without its head, in the right foreground.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Degas: A New Vision' at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne

 

Installation views of the exhibition Degas: A New Vision at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne with at left, Monsieur Reulle (1861) and at right, Portrait de jeune femme [Portrait of a young woman] (1867)

 

In this portrait of Monsieur Ruelle, Degas shows his father’s former bank cashier as a man of seriousness and restrained sophistication, dressed in a dinner suit and black bow tie as if preparing to go the opera. In its combination of informality and masculine severity the portrait conforms to a convention among ninetieth-centruy Realist artists of portraying each other and their friends as modern men of leisure and the metropolis.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Degas: A New Vision' at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne

 

Edgar Degas
Étude pour Jeunes Spartiates s’exerçant à la lutte [Study for The young Spartans exercising] (installation view)
c. 1860-61
Oil on paper on paper on cardboard
Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Friends of the Fogg Museum

 

 

On returning to Paris from Italy in 1860 Degas began work on scenes from the Bible and ancient history, including this preparatory oil sketch for a vignette from an ancient greek subject. In the foreground two groups of adolescents are seen confronting each other on the plains of Sparta, watched over by the white-haired law-giver Lycurgus and the teenagers’ mothers. The subject has conventionally been read as the exercises traditionally undertaken by Spartans in preparation for war, but it has also been suggested that it represents Spartan courtship rites. In the Life of Lycurgus  it was noted that display of physical prowess by girls assisted young men in choosing strong mothers, who would produce strong children.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Degas: A New Vision' at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne

installation-p

 

Edgar Degas
Petites filles spartiates provoquant des garçons [Young Spartan girls challenging boys] (installation views)
c. 1860
Oil on canvas
The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois

 

Edgar Degas. 'Edmondo and Thérèse Morbilli' c. 1865

 

Edgar Degas
Edmondo and Thérèse Morbilli
c. 1865
Oil on canvas
116.5 x 88.3 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Gift of Robert Treat Paine, 2nd
© 2016 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 

 

An exhibition of one of the world’s most beloved artists, Edgar Degas, opens to the public from tomorrow at NGV International showcasing significant works never-before-seen in Australia.

In its world premiere, Degas: A New Vision presents the largest display of Degas’ works to ever come to Australia, and forms the most comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s oeuvre in decades. Featuring more than 200 works, Degas: A New Vision reveals Degas’ talent in a new light; not only as a great master of painting, but also as a master of drawing, printmaking, sculpture and photography. The works travel to Melbourne from 65 lenders in more than 40 cities across the globe.

The Premier of Victoria, the Hon. Daniel Andrews MP, said, “Degas: A New Vision is a coup for the NGV and for Victoria. Local audiences will be the first in the world to experience this incredible exhibition – another example of how we are leading the way as the creative state. Part of the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series, this exhibition continues the tradition of creating drawcard cultural events for locals and visitors and bringing must-see art to our city each year.”

Some of Degas’ most famous masterworks are presented including the bronze sculpture The little fourteen-year-old dancer, 1879-81, and In a café (The Absinthe drinker), c. 1875-76. World-renowned paintings, never-before-seen in Australia, are also exhibited such as the celebrated ballet paintings The rehearsal, c. 1874, and Finishing the arabesque, 1877, and Degas’ monumental portrait The Bellelli family, 1867.

Tony Ellwood, Director, NGV, said, “Presenting Edgar Degas’ magnificent oeuvre in a fresh and reinvigorated light showcases him as one of the defining artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Considered one of the world’s most celebrated and significant artists, his influence upon modern and contemporary art is undeniable. Degas: A New Vision provides audiences with a rare experience to truly be immersed in the creativity and originality of his art, giving visitors a deeper and richer understanding of his brilliance.”

Degas: A New Vision is presented thematically, grouping together the subjects which Degas continually returned to throughout his career, including not only his famous ballet scenes but also arresting portraits, the nude, horse-racing, the social world of Parisian nightlife, and women at work and leisure. The exhibition also explores the great technical, conceptual and expressive freedoms that Degas achieved in his later years, and reveals his experiments with a range of mediums including sculpture and photography. This approach emphasises Degas’ obsessive and highly creative working methods, and allows visitors to enjoy the development of Degas’ art from its beginnings.

Degas was fascinated by aspects of modern life – voraciously painting Paris’ dance halls and cabarets, cafés, racetracks, opera and ballet stages. He also studied the simple, everyday gestures of working women: milliners, dressmakers and laundresses. He was drawn to explore movement that was precise and disciplined, such as that of racehorses and ballet dancers, and absorbed a diverse range of influences from Japanese prints to Italian Mannerism.

The National Gallery of Victoria is pleased to be working with the world’s pre-eminent expert on Edgar Degas, Henri Loyrette, former Director of the Musée du Louvre (2001-13) and Musée d’Orsay (1994-2001), who is principal curator of the exhibition. The National Gallery of Victoria and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, are both staging this major retrospective, which has been developed by both institutions in association with Art Exhibitions Australia. Degas: A New Vision travels to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in October 2016.

Press release from the National Gallery of Victoria

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Degas: A New Vision' at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne

 

Installation view of the exhibition Degas: A New Vision at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne with at centre left, Portrait of Mademoiselle Eugénie Fiocre in the ballet The Spring (1867-68) and, a centre right, Etude de nus: Mlle Fiocre dans le ballet La Source [Nude study: Mademoiselle Fiocre in the ballet The Spring) (1867-68)

 

Edgar Degas. 'Portrait of Mademoiselle Eugénie Fiocre in the ballet The Spring' 1867-68

 

Edgar Degas
Portrait of Mademoiselle Eugénie Fiocre in the ballet The Spring
1867-68
Oil on canvas
130.8 x 145.1 cm
Brooklyn Museum, New York
Gift of James H. Post, A. Augustus Healy, and John T. Underwood, 1921

 

Edgar degas. 'Etude de nus: Mlle Fiocre dans le ballet La Source' 1867-68

 

Edgar Degas 
Etude de nus: Mlle Fiocre dans le ballet La Source [Nude study: Mademoiselle Fiocre in the ballet ‘The Spring’] 
(installation view)
1867-68
Oil on canvas
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Degas: A New Vision' at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne

Installation view of the exhibition 'Degas: A New Vision' at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne

 

Installation views of the exhibition Degas: A New Vision at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne with at left, Portrait d’homme [Portrait of a man] (c. 1866) and a right, Victoria Dubourg (1868-69)

 

 

Among Degas’s circle of Realist painters were some outstanding practitioners of still life, a genre that enjoyed a resurgence of popularity following the revival of interest in the French eighteenth-century painter Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin. The identity of the man in this portrait is unknown, although he seems to be a still-life artist. He is depicted by Degas in his studio, informal seated with hands clasped, surrounded by the standard props of his trade: hunks of meat, white cloths, glassware and sketches of past still lives displayed on a wall as aides-mémoire – a masculine counterpart to the portrait of Victoria Dubourg that is also displayed here.

 

Edgar Degas. 'Victoria Dubourg' c. 1868-69

 

Edgar Degas
Victoria Dubourg
c. 1868-69
Oil on canvas
81.3 x 64.8 cm
Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William E. Levis

 

Edgar Degas. 'Mme Jeantaud sur sa chaise longue, avec deux chiens [Madame Jeantaud on her chaise longue, with two dogs]' 1877

 

Edgar Degas
Mme Jeantaud sur sa chaise longue, avec deux chiens [Madame Jeantaud on her chaise longue, with two dogs] (installation view)
1877
Oil on canvas
Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe

 

 

Berthe Marie Jeantaud was the wife of Charles Jeantaud, with whom Degas served in the artillery company under the command of Henri Rouart in 1870-71, during the chaos of the Franco-Prussian War and Paris Commune. Following Berthe Marie’s marriage to Jeantaud in 1872, Degas produced this as well as a second portrait of her. Her cousin was Vicomte Ludovic Lepic, a landscape painter and etcher who taught degas methods of manipulating plate tones in his monotypes. In this remarkable candid and economical oil sketch, Degas depicts Madame Jeantaud at home with her two small dogs at 24 rue de Téhéran.

 

Edgar Degas. 'Mme Jeantaud sur sa chaise longue, avec deux chiens [Madame Jeantaud on her chaise longue, with two dogs]' 1877 (detail)

 

Edgar Degas
Mme Jeantaud sur sa chaise longue, avec deux chiens [Madame Jeantaud on her chaise longue, with two dogs] (installation view detail)
1877
Oil on canvas
Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe

 

Edgar Degas. 'Henri Rouart and his daughter Hélène' 1871–72

 

Installation view of Degas’s Henri Rouart and his daughter Hélène 1871-72

 

Edgar Degas. 'Henri Rouart and his daughter Hélène' 1871-72

 

Edgar Degas
Henri Rouart and his daughter Hélène
1871-72
Oil on canvas
63.5 x 74.9 cm
Courtesy of Acquavalla Galleries
© Courtesy of Acquavella Galleries

 

 

So cordial were Degas’s relations with Henri Rouart and his brother Alexis, who was also an art collector, that he dined with Alexis on Tuesdays and Henri on Fridays. In 1906 Degas wrote to his sister Thérèse that the Rouarts were his only remaining family in France. This portrait of Henri with his daughter Hélène was the first of many portraits. Henri is seen here as a paterfamilias, head of his household (a role that Degas esteemed) and in front of one of his landscapes, which degas also admired enough to invite Henri to exhibit with the ‘impressionists’.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Degas: A New Vision' at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne

 

Installation views of the exhibition Degas: A New Vision at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne with at right, Dead fox in the undergrowth (1864-68)

 

Edgar Degas. 'Dead fox in the undergrowth' 1864-68

 

Edgar Degas
Renard mort, sou-bois [Dead fox in the undergrowth]
1864-68
Oil on canvas
35.0 x 58.0 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen
Photo © RMN-Grand Palais

 

 

While his colleagues exhibition plein-air landscapes as ‘Impressionists’, degas adhered to his position as a ‘Realist’ during the 1860s and 70s, with at times awkward results. Dead fox in the undergrowth displays the powerful sense of physical presence that can be achieved by studying a dead fox in the studio under artificial light, and by using a brush to render the fox’s luscious pelt. Less convincing is the forest setting, which is invited and only roughly blocked out. Here Degas applied thin slashes of green and brown paint to suggest trees and forest floor, emulating, some have suggested, the Realist technique of Gustave Courbet.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Degas: A New Vision' at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne

Installation view of the exhibition 'Degas: A New Vision' at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne

Installation view of the exhibition 'Degas: A New Vision' at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne

 

Installation views of the exhibition Degas: A New Vision at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne with at left, The little fourteen-year-old dancer (1879-81) and at centre bottom, The song rehearsal (c. 1872-73)

 

Edgar Degas. 'The little fourteen-year-old dancer' 1879-81, cast 1922-37

 

Edgar Degas
The little fourteen-year-old dancer
1879-81, cast 1922-37
Bronze with cotton skirt and satin ribbon
99.0 x 35.2 x 24.5 cm
Czestochowski/Pingeot 73 (cast unlettered)
Museu de Arte de São Paulo, Assis Chateaubriand
Donated by Alberto José Alves, Alberto Alves Filho and Alcino Ribeiro de Lima

 

 

At the 1881 ‘impressionist’ group exhibition Degas unveiled a large wax sculpture of an immature ballerina (of which this is a bronze version), which he provocatively clad in real clothing. Critics were scandalised, accusing him of having dredged ‘the lower depths of dance’, choosing his dancer from among the ‘most hatefully ugly’. Degas’ model, ballet student Marie Van Goethem, the daughter of a tailor and a laundress and part-time prostitute, was later to abandon her dance studies and disappear into Paris’ underworld.

Degas produced sculptures in his studio from the 1860s until the 1910s. He modelled them in wax, over steel wire and cork armatures. Never satisfied, he made, destroyed and remade them repeatedly, his primary subjects being thoroughbred racehorses, female dancers and women at their toilette. As Degas’ eyesight deteriorated in his later years, making three-dimensional figures fulfilled a physical and emotional need that transcended any desire to perfect a finished object; he allegedly said that sculpture was ‘a blind man’s trade’.

After Degas’ death in 1917, some 150 wax sculptures were found in his studio, some broken but many intact. His heirs subsequently authorised the casting in bronze, by the Adrien-A. Hébrard Foundry, Paris, and their Milanese master craftsman Albino Palazzolo, of seventy four of the most intact of Degas’ sculptures. While many of Degas’ original wax sculptures still survive, they are too fragile to travel. These bronzes allow wider audiences today to engage with some of the most beautiful sculptures of the nineteenth century.

 

Edgar Degas. 'The song rehearsal' c. 1872–73

 

Edgar Degas
The song rehearsal
c. 1872-73
Oil on canvas
81.0 x 64.9 cm
House Collection, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington D.C.

 

Installation view of Edgar Degas. 'Cotton merchants in New Orleans' 1873

 

Edgar Degas
Marchands de coton à la Nouvelle-Orléans [Cotton merchants in New Orleans] (installation view)
1873
Oil on linen
Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Gift of Herbert N. Strauss

 

Edgar Degas. 'Un bureau de coton à la Nouvelle-Orléans [A cotton office in New Orleans]' (installation view) 1873

 

Edgar Degas
Un bureau de coton à la Nouvelle-Orléans [A cotton office in New Orleans] (installation view)
1873
Oil on linen
Museé des Beaux-Arts, Pau

 

Edgar Degas. 'Un bureau de coton à la Nouvelle-Orléans [A cotton office in New Orleans]' 1873

 

Edgar Degas
Un bureau de coton à la Nouvelle-Orléans [A cotton office in New Orleans] (installation view)
1873
Oil on linen
Museé des Beaux-Arts, Pau

 

 

In October 1872 Degas travelled to New Orleans in the United States, where he stayed for five months with his late mother’s brother Michel Musson and the extended Musson family. The artist’s younger brothers René and Achille had already relocated there, and had opened a wine import business financed by the Parisian Degas family bank. During his stay in Louisiana, Degas painted A cotton office in New Orleans, 1873, which reflected his observations of the industry that was central to that city. This now celebrated painting, which became the first work by Degas to enter a public collection when acquired by Pau’s Musée des Beaux-Arts in 1878, depicts Michel Musson in the foreground sampling cotton fibre in the office of his cotton export business.

René and Achille De Gas appear as relaxed visitors – René reading a newspaper and Achille casually observing the other men at work – in this complex group portrait of fourteen men, which has echoes of the artist’s love of seventeenth-century Dutch guild portraits. A cotton office in New Orleans was the prototype for many of Degas’ works of the 1870s and 1880s: framing that cuts to the heart of the subject and slices through men and objects alike; a de-centred composition viewed from slightly overhead, with a steep, diagonal perspective; a depth of field that creates close-ups while miniaturising anything farther off; and contrasts provided by light sources and, more particularly, by the frequently reproduced backlighting effect.

 

Installation view of Edgar Degas. 'Courtyard of a house (New Orleans, sketch) 1873

 

Edgar Degas
Cour d’une maison à la Nouvelle-Orléans [Courtyard of a house (New Orleans, sketch)] (installation view)
1873
Oil on canvas
Ordeupgaard, Copenhagen
Bequest of the Danish government, 1951

 

The partially finished state of Courtyard of a house (New Orleans, sketch) reflects Degas’s experiences in the city, as he struggled to fulfil social obligations with his American relatives. The view here looking out from a shaded interior also indicates that Degas was already experiencing problems with his eyesight, which was affected by the harsh Louisiana sunlight.

 

Edgar Degas. 'The pedicure' 1873

 

Edgar Degas
The pedicure
1873
Oil and essence on paper on canvas
61.5 x 46.5 cm
Musée d’Orsay, Paris (RF 1986)
Photo © RMN – Hervé Lewandowski

 

 

The young girl being attended to by a chiropodist in this painting is believed to be Joe Balfour, daughter of Degas’s widowed cousin Estelle Musson, whose husband had been killed in 1862 during the American Civil War. Degas here uses a technique he invented, peinture à l’essence (which entailed using oil pigments with most of the oil blotted away, thinned out with turpentine). Applied like watercolour, it dried with a soft matt finish that Degas preferred to the glossy sheen of traditional oil paintings.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Degas: A New Vision' at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne

Edgar Degas Interior c. 1868-69 (installation view)

 

Installation views of the exhibition Degas: A New Vision at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne showing Interior (c. 1868-69)

 

Edgar Degas. 'Interior' c. 1868-69

 

Edgar Degas
Interior
c. 1868-69
Oil on canvas
81.3 x 114.3 cm
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania
The Henry P. McIlhenny Collection in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny, 1986
© Philadelphia Museum of Art

 

 

Degas ironically referred to this painting as ‘my genre picture’, by which he understated the gravitas of this domestic scene. This drama of seeming violation perpetrated on a young working-class woman b a man displaying the clothing and posture of a young bourgeois acquired in Degas’s hands the breadth and intensity of history painting. The muted colours and dim light accentuate the unspoken violence, anguish and simmering tension between the two people. The open box on the round table at the centre of the painting is a telling symbol of lost virginity. The rosy interior of the gaping jewel-case is brutally expired by the lamp standing next to it.

 

 

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

September 2016
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