Degas as a Collector
Degas: Beyond Impressionism The Art Institute of Chicago, September 30, 1996-January 5, 1997.
“At death,” wrote Larkin, “you break up: the bits that were you/Start speeding away from each other for ever….” Degas died in September 1917, and the bits that belonged to him started speeding away from each other soon after. He had thought of trying to keep them together, in a museum of his own, but that fantasy had not survived the trip in 1903 to the Gustave Moreau museum, which gave him the sinister feeling of being in a family vault. He had thought of giving the best of them to the Louvre—then, he said, he would go and sit in front of them and contemplate what a fine thing he had done for his nation. But that noble urge never bore fruit, and anyway he later came to despise the Louvre, as we shall see.
So it happened that in the end everything came under the hammer—works that he had painted in his youth, and had never let go of; works he had produced in old age, and that few had ever seen; paintings, drawings, and prints he had collected—a spiritual hoard. It took three of the greatest firms in the field—Bernheim-Jeune, Durand-Ruel, and Vollard—to catalog this material and organize its dispersal in seven auctions. When the first of those catalogs went out, showing the quality of Degas’s collection, everyone could see that this was an event of exceptional importance.
In England, Bloomsbury swung into effective action. Roger Fry showed the catalog to Sir Charles Holmes, the director of the National Gallery, whose funds had been cut off during the course of the Great War.1 Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell bent the ear of Maynard Keynes, who was then at the Treasury. And Keynes had one of his brilliant ideas.2
Under the current agreements with the French Treasury, the British were entitled to offset British government expenditure in France against their already huge loans to the French government. Since there was very little prospect of these loans being repaid until the distant future, and since there was even some question of the interest being paid in the short term, it made sense—so Keynes argued—for some of the payment to be converted, as it were, into pictures. The British government would ask the French to place the franc equivalent of å£20,000 to the credit of the British Embassy in Paris. Holmes would then sneak across to Paris and spend this French money on French masterpieces.
It was an imaginative way to be planning at that stage of the war, for between Degas’s death and the first sale of his collection on March 26, 1918, the Russians had withdrawn from the fighting, leaving the Germans in a position to advance on Paris, which was now within the range of their heavy guns. The entire Degas collection came close to destruction when the house opposite Durand-Ruel’s gallery was shelled a couple of days before the sale. To a conventional mind, this might seem the wrong time to go…
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