16
Sep
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Review: ‘Degas: A New Vision’ at the National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne Part 2

Exhibition dates: 24th June – 18th September 2016

 

This is a magnificent exhibition, well paced and beautifully hung in the gallery spaces. It is gratifying to see a “blockbuster” at the National Gallery of Victoria that does not rely on papered walls or patterned floors, that just allows the work to speak for itself. There is an excellent chronological trajectory to the work, showcasing the holistic development of the artist in one interweaving arc: from the early history paintings, where Degas is educating himself not only in the history of art but also in the practicalities of the history of painting (how actually to paint) … through to the late, bravura pastels.

Pastel is Degas’s strongest medium and it was incredible to observe close up how he could make pastel look like oil paint and vice versa. My favourite was Femme à la toilette [Woman at her toilette] (c. 1894, below) were the flattened perspectival image disintegrates before your eyes: “As well as reflecting the artist’s love of Japanese woodblock prints with their frequently intimate subject matter, in this late drawing Degas applied his vivid pigments with an almost sculptural intensity, building them up as though modelling form with his fingers.” Abstraction eat your heart out.

His “impressions” of reality rely on a keen eye, a wonderful understanding of space and the refractions of light, and the use of depth of field. The paintings I like best were not of the ballet, but rather the everyday “observational” paintings of the theatre box, a conversation and, particularly, The laundress ironing (c. 1882-86, below) with its simplified planar colour fields that run in different directions. These “punctures” of reality, or punctum to use a photographic term, elevate mundane everyday occurrences into a revelatory state – as though these encounters were taken from the flow of space and time, one frame out of a non-linear narrative.

The paintings of women at the toilettes are not voyeuristic but show a love and passion for an intimacy with women which he perhaps never achieved in real life, brought forth in observations of the female form “that challenged conventional notions of feminine beauty in their depiction of non-idealised jolie-laide (unconventionally beautiful) models”. Melbourne arts blogger Natalie Thomas observes that, “”Women and girls are everywhere in this show, but strangely absent too,” writes Thomas. Despite the fact the majority of Degas’ work explores femininity and the female body, the show, she says, fails to provide a female perspective.” (Natalie Thomas quoted in Shad D’Souza, “Gender and the NGV: ‘More white male artists than you can shake a stick at’,” on The Guardian website 15 September 2016 Cited 16/09/2016).

While I agree with Natalie Thomas that these paintings fail to provide a contemporary female perspective, that is not all that these paintings are about. Of course, they are a privileged white male gaze looking upon the body of a female and we must accept and acknowledge that is what they are. But that is just one element of their narrative. It’s all very well critiquing the work from the present day and saying there is no female perspective, but in the era in which these “sensational” paintings emerged – it was an epoch where the privileged, powerful male gaze could look upon the female body. Yes, please look at the paintings from a contemporary perspective while understanding the conditions under which they were created, and then try to say something more interesting about them: the perspective, the colours, the form, the position of the painter, the framing of the scene, the possible disappearance of the artist to the sitter, as though the camera (his eyes) had disappeared: where someone is so used to the other being there, that they are natural (do not act or perform), unselfconscious in front of them. Then, and only then, do the paintings perhaps become something else – about women, their lives and habits/habitats. A different perspective from trotting out the usual “we are objectified/ subjugated/ defiled” trope.

The sculptures are the revelation of the exhibition. Again, the male gaze pushing and prodding at the female form… except, these sculptures seem to erupt from within – like bubbling hot mud that seems to emanate from deep within the artist, erupting into the glorious form of the female body. Dark and mysterious, I would have loved to have seen one of the wax models, just one, to see the colour and feel the fragility of that form, over the robustness of the bronze.

And finally to the last room, the late works. There is an essentialness to the late work, the form stripped bare, heavily applied pastel in layers, dark heavy outlines with the frame filled with an “orgy of colours” – he “developed an expressive use of colour and line that may have arisen due to his deteriorating vision.” But he could still feel what he was doing and we can feel it too: the working of the medium, the working of the theme to its final resolution.

While I didn’t know much about the work of Degas other than the ballet pictures before this exhibition after three visits, perhaps I know just a little more.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

.
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.

 

 

Cafés-concerts: 1870s

The time that Degas spent overseas in New Orleans made him surprisingly nostalgic for everything he had left behind in Paris. The simple reason he gave was that ‘One loves and gives art only to the things to which one is accustomed’. Although delighted by the new sights and sensations he experienced in New Orleans, he felt that ‘ new things capture your face and bore you by turns’. With these words, Degas expressed what would become his credo for the rest of his career.

After this time, Degas refused invitations to travel to exotic locales and put aside the search for new subjects, focusing instead on the same themes: dancers, rockets, women in the bath. The novelty of what he had discovered in America also led him soon afterwards to retreat into himself. seeing inspiration in introspection. For Degas the exotic could be found perfectly well at home, especially in the new evening venues of 1870s Paris, the café-concerts. He delighted in exploring the tension and psychological preparation that lay behind the surface glamour of stage performances conducted within an artificial other-reality.

 

Edgar Degas. 'Danseuses, éventail [Dancers (Fan, design)]' (installation view) 1879

 

Edgar Degas
Danseuses, éventail [Dancers (Fan, design)] (installation view)
1879
Gouache, pastel and oil paint on silk
Tacoma Art Museum, Washington State
Gift of Mr and Mrs W. Hilding Lindberg

 

 

[Dancers (Fan, design) belongs to a group of fans made in the late 1870s that reflect Degas’s fascination at this time with Japanese art. Highly aestheticised, these fans show how Degas took advantage of this unusual format to explore new compositional possibilities. Here, for example, the balletic action taking place on stage competes for the viewer’s attention with the theatre’s screening machinery, as well as with the group of black-clad abonnés (subscribers with back stage passes) gathered in the wings in the middle distance.

 

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 left, Theatre box (1885) and at right, Theatre box (1880)

 

Edgar Degas. 'La Loge [Theatre box]' 1885

 

Edgar Degas
La Loge [Theatre box] (installation view)
1885
Pastel
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
The Armand Hammer Collection

 

 

In contrast with his numerous ballet works, Degas produced relatively few studies of the spectators at the Opera and other theatrical venues. Theatre box is one of his most captivating studies of the magical effects created by artificial stage lighting. Its contrast between the shadowy reality of the viewer in her dimmer theatre box and the vividly illuminated fantasy being performed before her onstage is as compelling as it is radical.

 

Edgar Degas. 'La Loge [Theatre box]' 1880

 

Edgar Degas
La Loge [Theatre box] (installation view)
1880
Pastel and oil on cardboard on canvas
The Lewis Collection, Houston

 

 

When exhibited at the fifth ‘impressionist’ group exhibition in Paris in 1880, this pastel attracted the attention of the critic Charles Ephrussi, who wrote glowingly of how it shoed ‘a profound knowledge of the relations between tones, producing the most unexpected and curious effects: the wine-coloured draperies of the spectator’s box and the yellowish glow of the footlights are projected onto the face of a diminutive theatre-goer, who thus finds herself illuminated by violet and brilliant yellow; the impression is strange, but captured with perfect reality’.

 

Edgar Degas. 'Theatre box' 1880

 

Edgar Degas
Theatre box
1880
Pastel and oil on cardboard on canvas
66.0 x 53.0 cm
The Lewis Collection

 

Edgar Degas. 'In a café (The Absinthe drinker)' c. 1875-76

 

Edgar Degas
In a café (The Absinthe drinker)
c. 1875-76
Oil on canvas
92 x 68.5 cm
Musée d’Orsay, Paris (RF 1984)
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Martine Beck-Coppola

 

 

Edgar Degas biography

Edgar Degas was born in 1834 into a wealthy banking family. Unlike many of his contemporaries, his family were supportive of his artistic talent and desire to become an artist.

Degas resisted being labelled an ‘Impressionist’ yet was at the core of the movement’s most important manifestations. Classically trained, Degas initially aspired to be a painter of historical narratives. As he matured, however, he made the depiction of daily life the central focus of his art. He was drawn primarily to the human figure engaged in movement and work, sketching on the spot then working up his finished compositions indoors in his studio. Degas’ obsession with the theatre and ballet in particular enabled him to explore his fascination with artificial light, which set him apart from the other Impressionists who preferred to work out-of-doors capturing the transient effects of natural daylight.

Degas absorbed many diverse influences, from Japanese prints to Italian Mannerism, and reinterpreted them in innovative ways. Degas obsessively revisited and experimented with his favourite themes which saw him fashion varied and unusual vantage points and asymmetrical framing. His depictions of ballet dancers alone number in the hundreds. Such endeavours helped him to achieve the innovative and distinctive style which is explored in Degas: A New Vision.

Degas served in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and began to experience eyesight deterioration by the late 1880s. He increasingly took up sculpture as his eyesight weakened. In his later years, he was preoccupied with the subject of women bathing unselfconsciously and developed an expressive use of colour and line that may have arisen due to his deteriorating vision.

Degas continued working to as late as 1912. He died five years later in 1917, at the age of eighty-three.

 

 

All that gesture in theatre summon,
or that the agile and mendacious tongue
of ballet speaks to those who comprehend
the silent eloquence of limbs in motion.

.
Edgar Degas

 

 

Edgar Degas. 'Rehearsal hall at the Opéra, rue Le Peletier' 1872

 

Edgar Degas
Rehearsal hall at the Opéra, rue Le Peletier
1872
Oil on canvas
32.7 x 46.3 cm
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

 

Edgar Degas. 'The dance rehearsal' c. 1870–72

 

Edgar Degas
The dance rehearsal
c. 1870-72
Oil on canvas
40.6 x 54.6 cm
The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
Gift of anonymous donor, initiated 2001, completed 2006

 

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 left, The rehearsal (c. 1874), and at right The dance class (c. 1873)

 

Edgar Degas. 'The rehearsal' c. 1874 (installation view)

 

Edgar Degas
The rehearsal (installation view)
c. 1874
Oil on canvas
58.4 x 83.8 cm
Lent by Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council: from the Burrell Collection with the approval of the Burrell Trustees
© CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

 

Edgar Degas. 'The rehearsal' c. 1874

 

Edgar Degas
The rehearsal
c. 1874
Oil on canvas
58.4 x 83.8 cm
Lent by Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council: from the Burrell Collection with the approval of the Burrell Trustees
© CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

 

 

While the friendships he established in the 1860s with musicians such as Désiré Dihau, a bassoon player with the Paris Opéra, brought Degas into the orbit of ballet performances in the French capital, the full extent of his access to this world prior to the mid-1880s remains unknown. This may explain why his many depictions of dancers practising backstage in rehearsal rooms in the 1870s were his own studio inventions rather than accurate depictions of the Opéra’s foyers de la danse.

Degas’ favourite theatrical venues – the Opéra in the rue le Peletier that was destroyed by fire in October 1873 and its replacement, the Palais Garnier, which opened in 1875 – were both located in the 9th arrondissement, close to his studio. Degas exhibited ballet compositions at the ‘impressionist’ group exhibitions from 1874 onwards, all the while resisting the label, arguing that his own art was Realist and meticulously crafted in the studio instead of spontaneously created before nature. When the Galeries Durand-Ruel began acquiring Degas’ paintings in 1872, the artist’s first sales at this time were of ballet subjects. Unlike the romantic perspective through which these scenes are viewed today, Degas’ contemporaries recognised in them a rejection of the surface glamour of ballet’s front of house in favour of a serious study of the gritty reality of life backstage. There, junior impoverished dancers jostled for attention from their trainers, all too frequently prostituting themselves on the side so they could afford to stay in competition for coveted stardom.

While The rehearsal and other similar depictions such as The dance class, c. 1873, are ostensibly based on direct observations of dance rehearsals at the Paris Opéra in the rue Le Peletier, their different treatments of architecture hint at the degree to which Degas constructed their compositions from memory. This painting shows a radical cropping of the spiral staircase at left connecting the stage level to the rehearsal room, down which the disembodied limbs of young ballerinas descend. In the background to the right the celebrated dance instructor Jules Perrot can be seen.

 

Edgar Degas. 'The dance class' c. 1873

 

Edgar Degas
The dance class
c. 1873
Oil on canvas
47.6 x 62.2 cm
National Gallery, Washington D.C.
Corcoran Collection (William A. Clark Collection)
© Courtesy of National Gallery, Washington

 

Edgar Degas. 'The dance class' c. 1873 (installation view)

 

Edgar Degas
The dance class (installation view)
c. 1873
Oil on canvas
47.6 x 62.2 cm
National Gallery, Washington D.C.
Corcoran Collection (William A. Clark Collection)
© Courtesy of National Gallery, Washington

 

Edgar Degas. 'Dancers on the stage' c. 1899 (installation view)

Edgar Degas. 'Dancers on the stage' c. 1899 (installation view)

 

Edgar Degas
Dancers on the stage (installation views)
c. 1899
Oil on canvas
76.0 x 82.0 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon
Legs Jacqueline Delubac, 1997

 

Edgar Degas. 'Dancers on the stage' c. 1899

 

Edgar Degas
Dancers on the stage
c. 1899
Oil on canvas
76.0 x 82.0 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon
Legs Jacqueline Delubac, 1997
Image © Lyon MBA – Photo RMN / Ojeda, Le Mage

 

Edgar Degas. 'Dancers on the stage' (detail) c. 1899

 

Edgar Degas
Dancers on the stage (detail)
c. 1899
Oil on canvas
76.0 x 82.0 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon
Legs Jacqueline Delubac, 1997

 

 

Dancers on the stage looks back to the experiments with pictorial space and repoussoir compositional staging that had so characterised Degas’s ballet works of the 1870s and early 1880s. Repoussoir was a favourite technique for Degas, a technique in which an object place prominently in the foreground of a work serves to emphasise the recession of physical space in the rest of the composition. In an unusual choice for the artist, Degas shows here a dress rehearsal on stage. The attention of the dancers is focused upon the diminutive figure of the dave master in the far left background whose presence ignites a diagonal magnetism that animates the whole painting.

 

Edgar Degas. 'Finishing the arabesque' 1877

 

Edgar Degas
Finishing the arabesque
1877
Oil and essence, pastel on canvas
67.4 x 38 cm
Musée d’Orsay, Paris (RF 4040)
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

 

Curator Dr Ted Gott talking to the media

 

Dr Ted Gott, Senior Curator of International Art at the National Gallery of Victoria talking to the media, standing in front of Degas’s Dancer with bouquets c. 1895-1900

 

Edgar Degas. 'Dancer with bouquets' c. 1895-1900 (installation view)

Edgar Degas. 'Dancer with bouquets' c. 1895-1900 (installation view detail)

 

Edgar Degas
Dancer with bouquets (installation view and detail)
c. 1895-1900
Oil on canvas
180.3 x 152.4 cm
Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia
Gift of Walter P. Chrysler, Jr, in memory of Della Viola Forker Chrysler

 

Edgar Degas. 'Dancer with bouquets' c. 1895-1900

 

Edgar Degas
Dancer with bouquets
c. 1895-1900
Oil on canvas
180.3 x 152.4 cm
Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia
Gift of Walter P. Chrysler, Jr, in memory of Della Viola Forker Chrysler

 

 

Sculptures

Although Degas exhibited only one sculpture during his lifetime, The little fourteen-year old dancer, he worked in this medium in privacy in his studio from the 1860s until the 1910s. His primary subjects were thoroughbred racehorses, female dances and women at the toilette, and he modelled his sculptures in wax, over steel wire and cork armatures. Never satisfied, he made, destroyed and remade them repeatedly. As Degas’s 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 side that sculpture was ‘a blind man’s trade’.

After Degas’s 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 of seventy-four of the most intact of Degas’s sculptures. While many of Degas’s 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.

 

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 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 showing the sculpture cases

 

Edgar Degas. 'The tub' 1888-89

 

Edgar Degas
The tub
1888-89, cast 1919-32
Bronze
22.5 x 45.0 x 42.0 cm
Czestochowski/Pingeot 26 (cast S)
Museu de Arte de São Paulo, Assis Chateaubriand
Donated by Alberto José Alves, Alberto Alves Filho and Alcino Ribeiro de Lima

 

Edgar Degas. 'The masseuse' c. 1896–1911

 

Edgar Degas
The masseuse
c. 1896-1911, cast 1919-32
Bronze
43.0 x 38.0 x 30.0 cm
Czestochowski/Pingeot 55 (cast S)
Museu de Arte de São Paulo, Assis Chateaubriand
Donated by Alberto José Alves, Alberto Alves Filho and Alcino Ribeiro de Lima

 

Edgar Degas. 'Seated woman wiping her left side' c. 1901–11

 

Edgar Degas
Seated woman wiping her left side
c. 1901-11, cast 1919-32
Bronze
35.0 x 30.5 x 30.4 cm
Czestochowski/Pingeot 46 (cast S)
Museu de Arte de São Paulo, Assis Chateaubriand
Donated by Alberto José Alves, Alberto Alves Filho and Alcino Ribeiro de Lima

 

Edgar Degas. 'Dancer adjusting the shoulder strap of her bodice' 1882–95

 

Edgar Degas
Dancer adjusting the shoulder strap of her bodice
1882-95, cast 1919-32
Bronze
35.2 x 15.9 x 11.8 cm
Czestochowski/Pingeot 64 (cast S)
Museu de Arte de São Paulo, Assis Chateaubriand
Donated by Alberto José Alves, Alberto Alves Filho and Alcino Ribeiro de Lima

 

Edgar Degas. 'Dancer looking at the sole of her right foot' (Second study) c. 1900-10

 

Edgar Degas
Dancer looking at the sole of her right foot (Second study)
c. 1900-10, cast 1919-37 or later
Bronze
47.3 x 24.3 x 20.8 cm
Czestochowski/Pingeot 59 (cast T)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with funds donated by Leigh Clifford AO and Sue Clifford, 2016

 

Edgar Degas. 'The laundress ironing' c. 1882-86 (installation view)

 

Edgar Degas
The laundress ironing (installation view)
c. 1882-86
Oil on canvas
64.8 x 66.7 cm
Reading Public Museum, Pennsylvania Gift, Miss Martha Elizabeth Dick Estate
© Courtesy of the Reading Public Museum, Pennsylvania

 

Edgar Degas. 'The laundress ironing' c. 1882-86

 

Edgar Degas
The laundress ironing
c. 1882-86
Oil on canvas
64.8 x 66.7 cm
Reading Public Museum, Pennsylvania Gift, Miss Martha Elizabeth Dick Estate
© Courtesy of the Reading Public Museum, Pennsylvania

 

Edgar Degas. 'The Conversation' 1895 (installation view)

 

Edgar Degas
The Conversation (installation view)
1895
Pastel
65.0 x 50.0 cm (sheet)
Acquavella Galleries
© Courtesy of Acquavella Galleries

 

Edgar Degas. 'The Conversation' 1895

 

Edgar Degas
The Conversation
1895
Pastel
65.0 x 50.0 cm (sheet)
Acquavella Galleries
© Courtesy of Acquavella Galleries

 

 

Walter Sickert recalled Degas speaking of his obsession with observing women at their most private moments. He wanted to look at their private activities through keyholes, according to Sickert: ‘He said that painters too much made of women formal portraits, whereas their hundred and one gestures, their chatteries, &c., should inspire an infinite variety of design’. The Conversation reflects the artist’s love of Japanese woodblock prints and their frequently intimate subject matter. The specifics of setting are only alluded to in this exquisite pastel, the emphasis being placed instead upon the close relationship between these two elegant Parisiennes.

 

Edgar Degas. 'Rose Caron' c. 1892 (installation view)

 

Edgar Degas
Rose Caron (installation view)
c. 1892
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo

 

 

Women at their toilettes: 1880s and 1890s

In 1875 pastel became one of Degas’s favourite techniques. Gustave Moreau had introduced him to this medium during their time together in Italy during the late 1850s, and the increasing interest in pastel in artistic circles during the 1870s influenced Degas’s choice to explore its potential. At the eighth and last ‘impressionist’ group exhibition in 1886 Degas exhibited a suite of pastel studies of women bathing that challenged conventional notions of feminine beauty in their depiction of non-idealised jolie-laide (unconventionally beautiful) models. George Moore wrote tellingly of these nudes: ‘The effect is prodigious. Degas has done what Baudelaire did – he has invented un frisson nouveau (a new sensation)’.

Because intimate access to female ablutions was rarely experience by husbands in bourgeois married life at the time, it was assumed by critics and audiences that Degas’s female nudes were performing their toilettes in a brothel setting. The close observation of undressed women engaged in private acts of washing and drying themselves led Degas’s ongoing status as a bachelor to become a topic of speculation in both the art world and wider social circles.

 

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, from left to right, Nude woman lying down (c. 1901), Dancer in a leotard (c. 1896) and Toilette after the bath (c. 1890)

 

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 centre, The Bather (La Baigneuse), c. 1895

 

Edgar Degar. 'La Baigneuse [The bather]' c. 1895

 

Edgar Degas
The Bather (La Baigneuse) (installation view)
c. 1895
Pastel and charcoal on paper
Bequest, Henry K. Dick Estate

 

Edgar Degas. 'Femme a la toilette [Woman at he toilette] c. 1895-1900 (installation view)

 

Edgar Degas
Femme à la toilette [Woman at he toilette] (installation view)
c. 1895-1900
Oil on canvas
Private collection

 

Edgar Degas. 'Femme a la toilette [Woman at her toilette] c. 1894 (installation view)

 

Edgar Degas
Femme à la toilette [Woman at her toilette] (installation view)
c. 1894
Charcoal and pastel on paper
956 x 1099 mm
Tate, London
Presented by C. Frank Stoop 1933
© Tate, London 2016

 

Edgar Degas. 'Femme a la toilette [Woman at her toilette] c. 1894

 

Edgar Degas
Femme à la toilette [Woman at her toilette]
c. 1894
Charcoal and pastel on paper
956 x 1099 mm
Tate, London
Presented by C. Frank Stoop 1933
© Tate, London 2016

 

 

The repetitive work involved in a woman’s daily maintenance of her hair appealed greatly to Degas. As early as 187 he asked whether he could observe Geneviève Halévy, a cousin of his old school friend Ludovic, performing this private tasks. Woman at her toilette is a fascinating study of a woman’s labour-intensive morning routine, drawn with a sense of pathos and human frailty. As well as reflecting the artist’s love of Japanese woodblock prints with their frequently intimate subject matter, in this late drawing Degas applied his vivid pigments with an almost sculptural intensity, building them up as though modelling form with his fingers.

 

Edgar Degar. 'Woman in a Tub' 1883

 

Edgar Degas
Woman in a Tub
c. 1883
Pastel on paper
70.0 x 70.0 cm
Tate, London
Bequeathed by Mrs A.F. Kessler 1983
© Tate, London 2016

 

Edgar Degas. 'Woman at her bath' c. 1895

 

Edgar Degas
Woman at her bath
c. 1895
Oil on canvas
71.1 x 88.9 cm
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
Purchase, Frank P. Wood Endowment, 1956
© 2016 Art Gallery of Ontario

 

Edgar Degas. 'Woman at her bath' c. 1895 (installation view)

 

Edgar Degas
Woman at her bath (installation view)
c. 1895
Oil on canvas
71.1 x 88.9 cm
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
Purchase, Frank P. Wood Endowment, 1956
© 2016 Art Gallery of Ontario

 

Edgar Degas. 'Woman seated on the edge of the bath sponging her neck' 1880-95 (installation view)

 

Edgar Degas
Woman seated on the edge of the bath sponging her neck (installation view)
1880-95
Oil and essence on paper mounted to canvas
52.2 x 67.5 cm
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

 

Edgar Degas. 'Woman seated on the edge of the bath sponging her neck' 1880-95

 

Edgar Degas
Woman seated on the edge of the bath sponging her neck
1880-95
Oil and essence on paper mounted to canvas
52.2 x 67.5 cm
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

 

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, Femme au Tub [Nude woman drying herself] c. 1884-86

 

Edgar Degas. 'Femme au Tub [Nude woman drying herself]' c. 1884-86 (installation view)

 

Edgar Degas
Femme au Tub [Nude woman drying herself] (installation view)
c. 1884-86
Oil on canvas
Brooklyn Museum, New York

 

 

Horse racing

 

Broken staccato heralds its approach,
strong, steaming breath, as early as the dawn,
kept to its straining pace by stable lad,
the fine colt gallops throwing up the dew.

.
Edgar Degas

 

 

Edgar Degas. 'Out of the paddock (Racehorses)' c. 1871-72, reworked c. 1874-78

 

Edgar Degas
Out of the paddock (Racehorses)
c. 1871-72, reworked c. 1874-78
Oil on wood panel
32.5 x 40.5 cm
Private collection

 

Edgar Degas. 'Chevaux de courses [Racehorses]' c. 1895-99 (installation view)

 

Edgar Degas
Chevaux de courses [Racehorses] (installation view)
c. 1895-99
Pastel on tracing paper on cardboard
55.8 x 64.8 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Purchase 1950

 

Edgar Degas. 'Chevaux de courses [Racehorses]' c. 1895-99

 

Edgar Degas
Racehorses
c. 1895-99
Pastel on tracing paper on cardboard
55.8 x 64.8 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Purchased 1950
Photo © NGC

 

Edgar Degas. 'Before the race' c. 1883-90

 

Edgar Degas
Before the race
c. 1883-90
Pastel
49.0 x 62.0 cm (sheet)
Private collection

 

 

Photography

“By the time he began making photographs in 1895, Degas was 61 years old and the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition was a decade behind him. Daniel Halévy, son of his old friends Ludovic and Louise Halévy, introduced Degas to photography, prompting the artist to acquire a camera that required glass plates and a tripod. In a burst of creative energy that lasted less than five years, he made a body of photographs of which fewer than 50 survive…

Exactly why Degas took up photography remains unknown. Clearly, photography provided a new pair of eyes during the period when his eyesight was failing. The illness and death of his sister, Marguerite, in 1895 and his brother Achille in 1893 may also have played a role. Photographs were for Degas a powerful tool of memory to recall his loved ones, and the activity of photographing bound him closely to an extended family-the Halévys-that embraced him in his time of grief…

Degas often illuminated his subjects with a single bright light source. The figures seem to emerge from darkness. In a series of individual portraits he made of Daniel and Louise Halévy in the autumn of 1895, each sitter is pictured in the same armchair in their home, under this Rembrandtesque light. They are seen in original contact prints (about 3 x 4 inches) and in enlargements. Altogether, these images show the artist’s picture-making process and reveal Degas’ manipulations of space, scale, focus, and emotional effect. In Louise Halévy Reading to Degas (J. Paul Getty Museum), another enlargement from a contact print done about the same time, Degas conveys unusual intimacy. It shows a vulnerable man’s dependence upon a friend in reading the newspaper at a time when his eyesight was failing.”

Text from the J. Paul Getty Museum

 

“These days, Degas abandons himself entirely to his new passion for photography,” wrote an artist friend in autumn 1895, the moment of the great Impressionist painter’s most intense exploration of photography. Degas’s major surviving photographs little known even among devotees of the artist’s paintings and pastels, are insightfully analyzed and richly reproduced for the first time in this volume, which accompanies an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Bibliothéque Nationale de France.

Degas’s photographic figure studies, portraits of friends and family, and self-portraits – especially those in which lamp-lit figures emerge from darkness – are imbued with a Symbolist spirit evocative of realms more psychological than physical. Most were made in the evenings, when Degas transformed dinner parties into photographic soirees, requisitioning the living rooms of his friends, arranging oil lamps, and directing the poses of dinner guests enlisted as models. “He went back and forth … running from one end of the room to the other with an expression of infinite happiness,” wrote Daniel Halévy, the son of Degas’s close friends Ludovic and Louise Halévy, describing one such evening. “At half-past eleven everybody left; Degas, surrounded by three laughing girls, carried his camera as proudly as a child carrying a rifle.”

Text from The Met website

 

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, Paul Gobillard, Jeannie Gobillard, Julie Manet, and Geneviève Mallarmé (16 December 1895)

 

Edgar Degas. 'Self-portrait with Zoé Closier' probably Autumn 1895

 

Edgar Degas
Self-portrait with Zoé Closier
probably Autumn 1895
Gelatin silver print
18.2 x 24.2 cm (image and sheet)
Daniel 20a
Bibliothèque nationale de France

 

Edgar Degas. 'Self-portrait with Zoé Closier' probably Autumn 1895 (installation view)

 

Edgar Degas
Self-portrait with Zoé Closier (installation view)
probably Autumn 1895
Gelatin silver print
18.2 x 24.2 cm (image and sheet)
Daniel 20a
Bibliothèque nationale de France

 

Edgar Degas. 'Self-portrait with Bartholome's Weeping girl' probably Autumn 1895 (installation view)

 

Edgar Degas
Self-portrait with Bartholomé’s Weeping girl (installation view)
probably Autumn 1895
Gelatin silver print
Musée d’Orsay, Paris

 

Edgar Degas. 'Paul Gobillard, Jeannie Gobillard, Julie Manet, and Genevieve Mallarme' 16 December 1895

 

Edgar Degas
Paul Gobillard, Jeannie Gobillard, Julie Manet, and Geneviève Mallarmé
16 December 1895
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

Edgar Degas. 'Daniel Halévy' 14 October 1895

 

Edgar Degas
Daniel Halévy
14 October 1895
Gelatin silver print
40.0 x 29.4 cm (image and sheet)
Daniel 5b
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Gift of the children of Mme Halévy-Joxe (PHO 1994-1 2)
Photo © RMN – Hervé Lewandowski

 

Late works

Edgar Degas. 'Three dancers' 1896-1905

 

Edgar Degas
Les Trois Danseuses [Three dancers]
1896-1905
Pastel
51.0 x 47.0 cm
Lent by Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council: from the Burrell Collection with the approval of the Burrell Trustees (35.249)
© CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

 

Pastel entitled Les Trois Danseuses, depicting three ballet dancers, apparently making an entry, wearing yellow ballet skirts.

 

Edgar Degas. 'Group of dancers (red skirts)' 1895-1900 (installation view)

 

Edgar Degas
Group of dancers (red skirts) [Les Jupes Rouges] (installation view)
1895-1900
Pastel
77.0 x 58.0 cm
Lent by Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council: from the Burrell Collection with the approval of the Burrell Trustees
© CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

 

Edgar Degas. 'Group of dancers (red skirts)' 1895-1900

 

Edgar Degas
Group of dancers (red skirts) [Les Jupes Rouges]
1895-1900
Pastel
77.0 x 58.0 cm
Lent by Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council: from the Burrell Collection with the approval of the Burrell Trustees
© CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

 

 

Pastel entitled Les Jupes Rouges, depicting three ballet dancers in red skirts – in posing practice.

Throughout his career Degas produced more than 700 works in pastel. In the 1870s he often worked ‘wet’, employing pastel à l’eau (crushing pastel sticks to powder which, mixed with water, could be applied with a brush) to create smooth, seamless textures. By the mid 1890s he worked increasingly with layers of pastel cement together over applications of fixative. This created shimmering optical effects that celebrated the crumbly texture of the pastel medium.

 

Edgar Degas. 'Dancers at the barre' 1900

 

Edgar Degas
Dancers at the barre
1900
Charcoal and pastel on tracing paper on cardboard
111.2 x 95.6 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Purchased 1921
Photo © NGC

 

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 right, Dancers at the barre (1900)

 

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, The Russian dancer (1895)

 

Edgar Degas. 'Dancers at a rehearsal' c. 1895-98 (installation view)

 

Edgar Degas
Dancers at a rehearsal (installation view)
c. 1895-98
Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal

 

 

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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.

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