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Degas Invents a New World

Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty

an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, March 26–July 24, 2016
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Jodi Hauptman
Museum of Modern Art, 239 pp., $50.00
Edgar Degas: Frieze of Dancers, oil on canvas, circa 1895
Cleveland Museum of Art
Edgar Degas: Frieze of Dancers, oil on canvas, circa 1895

Edgar Degas was a paradoxical man, disconcerting in both his actions and his appearance. “With his silk hat on his head, his blue spectacles over his eyes—not to forget the umbrella—he is the image of a notary, a bourgeois of the time of Louis-Philippe,” according to Paul Gauguin.1 A notary, really? Not to the eyes of Paul Valéry, who describes him opening the door of his atelier, “shuffling about in slippers, dressed like a pauper, his trousers hanging, never buttoned.”2 The portrait painter Jacques-Émile Blanche saw him as neither a bourgeois nor an artist, but as

a platoon commander on a drill field; if he makes a gesture, that gesture is imperious, as expressive as his hand in drawing; but he quickly retreats to a pose as defensive as that of a woman concealing her nakedness, the habit of a solitary soul who veils or protects his personality.3

Degas himself, toward the end of his life, nearly blind, painted a self-portrait and said that he looked like an old dog, while his friend the sculptor Bartholomé found him to be “more beautiful than ever, like an old Homer with his eyes fixed on eternity.”4

He never had one quality without having its opposite:

Degas could be charming or unpleasant. He possessed—and affected—the worst possible disposition; yet there were days when he was quite unpredictably delightful.5

Such was the opinion of Valéry. A confirmed bachelor with a thirst for tidiness, he dreamed, as he told his friend Henri Rouart, of “having everything, well organized (à la Poussin),”6 but he was perfectly capable, although he spent days at a time alone in his atelier, of painting in the pandemonium of a family home like his brother’s, in Louisiana, “in an impossible light, constantly disturbed, with models full of affection but a little sans-gêne,”7 or at the home of the Morisot family where, in the midst of the comings and goings of a stream of visitors, he quickly completed a ravishing portrait of Berthe Morisot’s sister, Yves. Degas’s work was of such complexity that he had difficulty letting it go while he could still glimpse a vast array of possibilities that he was determined to explore. He was capable of revising a dancer’s leg ten or twenty times and then just one last time but, as Valéry put it, had

political views that were simple, peremptory, and essentially Parisian…. With the advent of the Dreyfus affair, he was quite beside himself. He would bite his nails. He would listen for the slightest hint of what he suspected, would burst out, make a clean break at once: “Adieu monsieur…” and turn his back on the enemy forever.8

He broke off all relations with a lifelong friend, Ludovic Halévy, who was the librettist of Carmen and of successful operettas by Offenbach, as well as the author of novels such as Les Petites Cardinal that Degas had illustrated, because one of Halévy’s guests at a dinner party had expressed a favorable opinion of Dreyfus. He only saw Halévy again on his deathbed.

He often struck fear into people, Blanche noted, not merely because of the cutting jibes he was accustomed to make, but even more because his hostility was frequently so incomprehensible. He tried to explain himself to the painter Évariste de Valernes, who appears with him in a self-portrait he did in 1865:

I was or I seemed to be hard with everyone through a sort of an inclination toward brutality, which came from my uncertainty and my bad humour. I felt myself so badly made, so badly equipped, so weak, whereas it seemed to me, that my calculations on art were so right. I sulked against the whole world and against myself.9

Degas was a loner. He had always felt alone. Alone because of his character, alone because of his unyielding principles, alone because of his severe judgments. He pushed this taste for a cloistered life to the limits of absurdity. His reaction to a laudatory article by Louis Ganderax, a respected and influential critic, was to cry out:

Is painting something done to be put on show? You understand, one works for two or three living friends, and for others one has never met or who are dead. Is it any concern of a journalist whether I paint, make boots, or stitch list slippers? That’s my own business.10

He exhibited with the Impressionists but he didn’t consider himself a member of the group, if for no other reason than that he violently rejected the very idea of painting outdoors. “If I were the government I would have a special brigade of gendarmes to keep an eye on the people who paint landscapes from nature,” he told the art dealer Ambroise Vollard.11 And beneath the jest lurked a very firm conviction. He wrote to his friend the artist Pierre Georges Jeanniot:

You have chosen to give us the air of the outdoors, the air we breathe, the open air. Well, a painting is first and foremost a product of the artist’s imagination, it should never be a copy…the air that we see in a painting by a master is never air that can be breathed.

He concluded with a phrase that might have been written by Proust:

It’s all very well to copy what one sees, it’s much better to draw what one can see only in one’s memory. That is a transformation in which one’s ingenuity toils hand in hand with one’s memory…. You reproduce nothing but that which has made an impression upon you, which is to say, the necessary. There your memories and your imagination are freed of the tyranny of nature.12

Crushing bouts of depression led him to write: “A door shuts inside one and not only on one’s friends. One suppresses everything around one and once all alone one finally kills oneself, out of disgust,” and he added: “I thought there would always be enough time…. I stored up all my plans in a cupboard and always carried the key on me. I have lost that key.”13 At age fifty, he thought his career was at an end. The condition of his eyes was a constant source of torment. If he was so rash as to read a little in the morning he could not start working. “I am sliding rapidly down the slope and rolling I know not where, wrapped in many pastels, as if they were packing paper,” he confided to Bartholomé.14 But he always bounded back and at age seventy he told Rouart: “You have to have a high conception, not of what you are doing, but of what you may do one day: without that, there’s no point in working.”15

Degas’s curiosity, his desire to continue exploring, never ceased to spur him on. The MoMA exhibition “Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty,” organized by Jodi Hauptman, the senior curator of drawings and prints, with Karl Buchberg, senior conservator, is the first complete exhibition of his monotypes since the one at Harvard’s Fogg Museum in 1968, and it is indispensable for an understanding of his quest for new techniques, new subjects, and new forms.

The experimental method, which was part of the zeitgeist of the last third of the nineteenth century, suited him: there was something of the inventor in this bricoleur always ready to try something new, often for the pleasure of starting over from scratch when he finally hit a wall, toiling away in his atelier where, observed Valéry, “light and dust mingled happily [amid] a basin, a dull zinc bathtub, stale bathrobes…bottles, flasks, pencils, bits of pastel chalk…broken pots, odds and ends.”16 Most important, it housed a press, now in the Musée de Montmartre, an indispensable tool for the creation of his monotypes, a technique that allowed him to renew himself by abandoning the classicism he had grown up with.

Degas described the monotype as a drawing made with greasy ink and put through a press. It is a print of which there is in theory one copy, followed in his case by another. The result sits somewhere between an original drawing and a print, but in fact it is neither the one nor the other. On a hard slick surface (usually a copper or zinc plate, or else a sheet of celluloid) covered with ink, Degas would remove the ink with a stroke of a brush or a pen, the end of an implement, the tip of a finger, or even a rag, allowing a line or a silhouette to appear. He would then lay a sheet of damp paper on the plate and run it through the press.

The proof thus obtained was in the “dark-field manner,” that is, with a dark background; if instead he drew with ink directly on the bare plate, the result was a light-field print. Contrary to customary practice, Degas wasn’t satisfied with just a single proof. He’d print a second one, known as a cognate or ghost print, much lighter, which he would enhance with pastel. He would then further transform the monotype, often modifying completely the original impression. These pairs of prints have in most cases been separated, and it was a considerable challenge to reassemble them. To give some idea of how widely Degas’s oeuvre had been dispersed, suffice it to say that to show 176 works, the museum had to contact eighty-nine lenders. The labor was justified. One of the delights of the exhibition then is that it allows us to see a number of successive prints side by side.

Monotypes demanded great speed—it was necessary to work before the ink could dry—but it also made it possible to retouch the image right up to the last minute. As Richard Kendall points out in the catalog:

Monotype seemed to invite experiment and improvisation as ink was freely added, subtracted, or variously manipulated in the studio…. The artist was also able to modify or even completely transform his composition as he progressed by simply wiping ink away.

Degas enthusiastically plunged into all kinds of research in order to refine his method. The printmaker Marcellin Desboutin describes him in this period: Degas “is no longer a friend, a man, an artist! He’s a zinc or copper plate blackened with printer’s ink, and plate and man are flattened together by his printing press whose mechanism has swallowed him completely!” The audacity of his techniques was matched by the audacity of his subjects.

The exhibition gives prominence to the different sorts of nudes in Degas’s work: some are caricatural, others spring from a violent imagination, while still others are calmer and often deeply moving. The nudes of the former variety, done in the light-field manner, are women in brothels, creatures more comic than obscene, set among a suggestive decor made up of mirrors, sofas, and unmade beds. In some cases, Degas rises above the sordidness of these situations to imagine scenes of slapstick comedy. In La Fête de la Patronne (The Name Day of the Madam; see illustration), the girls, naked, save for stockings and slippers, laugh as they give enormous bouquets to the madam—who in her cheap black dress looks like nothing so much as an old cook—and shower her with kisses. The astonishing framing allows, at the top left, for a belly and an arm extending a bunch of flowers to appear, while in the upper-right corner the large globes of the ceiling lamp look very much like breasts.

Edgar Degas: The Name Day of the Madam, pastel over monotype on paper, circa 1877–1879
Musée Picasso, Paris
Edgar Degas: The Name Day of the Madam, pastel over monotype on paper, circa 1877–1879

The girls aren’t pretty; their vulgar-looking faces frequently evoke dogs or apes, for instance in Waiting for the Client or Woman in a Bathtub. These are crude views of women in their workplace, though not at work since the client is absent. Only in a very few prints do we see a mild-mannered-looking fellow in a derby hat, hesitant and admiring rather than menacing. These monotypes aren’t really made to provoke the viewers’ desire, unlike the pornographic photographs that were so common in this era and that circulated widely. The only genuinely erotic image in the series is that of the lesbians in Two Women—Scene from a Brothel: in a gray half-light, one woman is lying on her back while the other seems to swoop down.

When Degas focuses on dark-field monotypes, he abandons any notion of the anecdotal, any clear allusions to the brothel, and becomes more brutal in his depiction, as Carol Armstrong writes in the catalog, of

the faceless women…who use bidets and chamber pots, who bend over with their backsides to the viewer, whose legs are splayed, whose hastily limned gestures may be masturbatory…. All decorum is relinquished, all sublimation renounced, all inhibition surrendered….

The contrast between shadow and light and the extreme importance of the black tones all work together to create shapes that seem to emerge from a dream or a nightmare. There are certain disturbing, often perverse poses, but the fact that we never see the woman’s face confers on the image a certain ambiguous reticence.

These monotypes, which Degas always refused to present to the public, invite us to reflect on his relationship with women, an obsessive theme in his work that mixed attraction and disgust. This misanthrope admitted at times that “living alone, without a family, is really too hard. I never would have suspected it would have caused me so much suffering.”17 But he never tried to remedy the situation. Berthe Morisot recalls that at a gathering at the Manets’ home,

M. Degas came and sat beside me, pretending that he was going to court me, but this courting was confined to a long commentary on Solomon’s proverb: “Woman is the desolation of the righteous.”18

Perhaps he really believed this was the case, for he never had a lasting attachment.

But other nudes, gentler, more sensitive, and in particular the series Couchers ou des Levers (Going to Bed or Getting Up), show once again just to what extent Degas was able to do one thing and its opposite. These women, as if glimpsed through a keyhole,19 chastely wearing their nightcaps, are more evocative of seventeenth-century Holland than of mocking or erotic views of lowlife Paris. Sometimes, Degas would pass from one world to another with the same image as the point of departure. For instance, the first proof of Woman in a Bathtub shows an ugly woman in squalid surroundings while the second one, overlaid in pastel, gave him a chance to retouch the face, to decorate the bathroom walls, and to create a cozy atmosphere. He undertook a comparable transformation in his treatment of the second proof of Woman Going to Bed. In the first, the woman is scarcely sketched out and the decor is nondescript. In the second, the body is admirably drawn, the carpet has been created by the artist’s fingerprints, and the far wall and the bedclothes have real substance. These continual alterations become even more surprising in Degas’s landscapes.

Since the general public of the present day thinks of Degas as first and foremost a painter of milliners, laundresses, dancers, and race horses, for many visitors these landscapes will come as a revelation. That was true during his lifetime, too. His closest friends, the Halévys among them, were flabbergasted to learn in 1892 that he was about to exhibit twenty-one landscapes, since he’d never done one before. The Halévys’ surprise was understandable: after all, he had always made fun of outdoor painters. “Painting is not a sport” was the view he tossed at Ernest Rouart, who roamed the countryside in search of subjects.

Even wearing his tinted lenses, he couldn’t stand intense light and he decreed that the sight of the sea was too Monet for his eyes.20 No one had ever seen him do a sketch at a racetrack. In a conversation with Halévy, Degas explained that during a number of summer train trips he’d stood in the door “and as the train went along I could see things vaguely. That gave me the idea of doing some landscapes.” “Reflections of your soul?” asked Halévy. “A reflection of my eyesight,” replied Degas.21

Odder still, Degas’s only personal exhibition was in fact devoted precisely to those landscapes and it was held at the Durand-Ruel gallery just a few months after the exhibition of Monet’s Poplars series. As Richard Kendall has written:

For Degas, it offered a characteristic moment of contrary revelation, reminding critics and fellow-artists of his continuing vitality, while cheerfully upsetting most of their preconceptions about his oeuvre. In the galleries where Monet had triumphed…Degas now presumed to show his own “series of monotypes,” each devoted to the landscape and each engaged with a similar “flood of changing and inter-related sensations, apparent in the face of a changeless spectacle.”22

In a letter to his sister, he described these landscapes as imaginary and emphasized his lack of interest in accurate description.23 According to Valéry he did sketches of rocks indoors, taking as models pieces of coal he extracted from his stove.24 He was certainly capable of conjuring up from his remarkable memory different aspects of nature and producing in his atelier unambiguous landscapes, but the monotype technique pushed him toward other horizons. One of the themes of the exhibition is repetition and transformation, and nowhere is the transformation as radical as it is in the landscapes.

For these landscapes, Degas, always eager to innovate, no longer used black ink but instead made use of colored, more fluid inks, a technique that no one had tried before him. The element of chance was reinforced by the fact that he couldn’t control the flow of the ink under the press, and the result was an abandonment of all realism. Does Le Cap Ferrat, a shape bounded by impressions of an exquisite delicacy, depict an imaginary map of a peninsula, a mythical fish, or simply a patch of color open to any and all interpretation? In connection with an exhibition of his landscapes at the Metropolitan Museum in 1994, John Updike wrote very accurately in these pages that Degas’s “formal manners belong to the nineteenth century, but his artistic ruthlessness and freedom to the twentieth,”which brings us back to the impossibility of “classifying” Degas.25

Edgar Degas: Wheatfield and Line of Trees, pastel over monotype in oil on paper, 1890
Private Collection
Edgar Degas: Wheatfield and Line of Trees, pastel over monotype in oil on paper, 1890

Degas’s last monotypes date from the 1890s but the practice of that form of etching had a lasting influence. You can see it in the last room in the show, devoted to his later works. Most of them are unfinished. But Degas had always had a hard time admitting that a painting was finished. Even after it was sold, an artwork could always be revised. His friend Henri Rouart learned this at his own expense. He had purchased a pastel that he dearly loved. Sometime later, Degas came to dinner and left with the pastel under his arm, to spruce up a detail. Rouart never saw his painting again. Degas revised it to such an extent that it was ruined.

In the works of his last years, one is struck by Degas’s obsession with certain poses, poses that he reproduced with a growing freedom, making use of every medium at his disposal, charcoal, pastel, and oil paints. With unrelenting obstinacy, he dreamed up all the possible variations of specific gestures, whether it was the arm of a dancer adjusting her strap, reminiscent of the gesture of a woman straining to dry the back of her neck or sponge her shoulders, the bending of a leg, the curve of a back. At this point, he literally seemed to be manipulating the body of his model, rather than drawing it. In Frieze of Dancers, four girls adjust their slippers: they’re all doing the same thing and yet each is doing something different (see illustration above). Here, Valéry recognized a similarity to the task of the writer,

striving to attain the utmost precision of form, drafting and redrafting, canceling, advancing by endless recapitulation, never admitting that his work has reached its posthumous stage: so too Degas from sheet to sheet, tracing to tracing, he continually revises his drawing. He digs into it, squeezes and envelops it.26

Thus ends an exceptionally complex and intriguing exhibition, which makes the best possible use of an array of works seldom seen in one place. Together they constitute a genuine portrait of the artist.

—Translated from the French by Antony Shugaar

  1. 1

    Paul Gauguin’s Intimate Journals, translated by Van Wyck Brooks (Boni and Liveright, 1921; Dover, 1997), p. 54.  

  2. 2

    Paul Valéry, Degas Manet Morisot, translated by David Paul (Pantheon, 1960), p. 22. (Some translations from Valéry have been altered.)  

  3. 3

    Jacques-Émile Blanche, Propos de Peintre de David à Degas (Paris: Émile-Paul Frères, 1919), pp. 307–308.  

  4. 4

    Henri Loyrette, Degas, “Je voudrais être illustre et inconnu” (Paris: Gallimard, 1988), p. 126.  

  5. 5

    Valéry, Degas Manet Morisot, p. 18.  

  6. 6

    Degas to Henri Rouart, December 5, 1872, in Edgar Germain Hilaire Degas, Letters, edited by Marcel Guerin and translated by Marguerite Kay (Oxford: Bruno Cassirer, 1947), p. 26.  

  7. 7

    Degas to Lorenz Frölich, November 27, 1872, in Degas, Letters, p. 22.  

  8. 8

    Valéry, Degas Manet Morisot, p. 52.  

  9. 9

    Degas to Evariste de Valernes, October 26, 1890, in Degas, Letters, p. 171.  

  10. 10

    Jean-Paul Crespelle, Degas et son monde (Paris: Presses de la Cité, 1972), p. 14.  

  11. 11

    Ambroise Vollard, Degas: An Intimate Portrait, translated by Randolph T. Weaver (Crown, 1937; Dover, 1986), p. 56.  

  12. 12

    Maurice Serullaz, L’Univers de Degas (Paris: Screpel, 1979), p. 13.  

  13. 13

    Degas to Henry Lerolle, August 21, 1884, in Degas, Letters, p. 81.  

  14. 14

    Quoted in Degas, Letters, pp. 80–81.  

  15. 15

    Valéry, Degas Manet Morisot, p. 64.  

  16. 16

    Valéry, Degas Manet Morisot, p. 19.  

  17. 17

    Edgar Degas, “Je veux regarder par le trou de la serrure”: Propos choisis, edited by Jean-Paul Morel (Paris: Fayard, 2012), p. 68.  

  18. 18

    Berthe Morisot to Edma Morisot, March 18, 1869, in Theodore Reff, Degas: The Artist’s Mind (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 157.  

  19. 19

    George Moore, “Memories of Degas,” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 32, No. 179 (February 1918).  

  20. 20

    Degas, “Je veux regarder par le trou de la serrure,” p. 68.  

  21. 21

    Daniel Halévy, My Friend Degas, translated by Mina Curtiss (Wesleyan University Press, 1964), p. 66. Here, too, it is hard not to think of Proust’s narrator, fascinated by the changes in view seen from the window of his passenger compartment, spending his time “[à] rentoiler les fragments intermittents et opposites de [s]on beau matin écarlate et versatile.” Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (Paris: Pléiade, Gallimard, 1988), Vol. 2, p. 16. The D.J. Enright revision of Terence Kilmartin’s reworking of C.K. Scott Montcrieff’s translation reads thus: “I spent my time running from one window to the other to reassemble, to collect on a single canvas the intermittent, antipodean fragments of my fine, scarlet, ever-changing morning.”  

  22. 22

    Richard Kendall, Degas Landscapes (Yale University Press, 1993), pp. 187–188.  

  23. 23

    Jeanne Fèvre, Mon oncle Degas, unpublished remembrances and documents gathered by Pierre Borel (Geneva: Pierre Cailler, 1949), p. 102.  

  24. 24

    Valéry, Degas Manet Morisot, p. 43.  

  25. 25

    John Updike, “Degas Out of Doors,” The New York Review, March 24, 1994.  

  26. 26

    Valéry, Degas Manet Morisot, p. 39.