My Friend Degas
The Unknown Degas and Renoir in the National Museum of Belgrade
Two or three times a week Degas would leave his studio, ring our door well and sit down at table with us”—irresistible words which occur on the first page of Daniel Halévy’s remine-scences of the artist. Halévy, though a man of the very highest gifts and achievements, was only sixteen when he began to keep the journal here transcribed and he did not have the overriding intellectual preoccupations which underlie Paul Valéry’s memoirs of Degas. Though many of the same stories are naturally recorded by both men, in this case it is made absolutely clear that Degas has left his studio and is relaxing with close friends. This is a domestic portrait, as evocative as a Vuilard, in which Degas sometimes merges into the background of that happy family life which he appears to have deliberately denied to himself: “it seems to me,” he had written when only twenty, “that to be a serious artist today one must soak oneself in solitude.” He relentlessly adhered to this program, and yet he had a longing and deep capacity for friendship, as was recognized by all who were close to him. “Bitter?,” he once protested to Daniel’s father, Ludovic, “but I am very happy. Everybody knows that.” “Only those who know you personally,” came the reply. But we know him now only through such memoirs as these and a series of masterpieces which have appeared to be so enigmatic that every critic has held different views as to what his subjects meant to him. Bitter? There have been few to dissent.
The book can and should be read for itself, for the author’s subtle gifts and delightful personality are reflected on every page. Yet the temptation to use it as yet one more tool with which to penetrate “the mystery of Degas” is overwhelming. He would have hated this—we find him constantly railing against journalists and all who sought to explain him. “Those people trap you in your bed, strip off your shirt, corner you in the street, and when you complain, they say: ‘You belong to the public.’ ” And, in 1912, on one of the last occasions Halévy ever met him, Degas “said in that always distant voice, sad rather than complaining, as though he were repeating things remembered: ‘Oh, literature—writers—no, what’s underneath is no one’s business. There must be a certain mystery. Works of art must be left with some mystery about them.’ ” Life, too, he might have added, for the steps he took to maintain his privacy have remained legendary—and effective.
He was aged fifty-four when in 1888 the young Halévy first began to record his impressions of him. The Impressionist exhibitions already belonged to the past, and his talents were widely (though, of course, not universally) acknowledged. But his eyesight was growing steadily worse and he was subject to fits of terrible depression, to outbursts of sarcasm and rage. All this we know from other sources. Here, in the warm, cultivated atmosphere he loved, he is generally at ease, and indeed the charming photographs which illustrate the book show him positively high spirited. Belonging by birth to the upper bourgeoisie whose rigid ideals of correct behavior he shared—and followed to the point of fanaticism—he yet ached for a world where relationships were easier, less stiff, than in his own. Sometimes he found this in the Halévy circle, to which he was especially drawn by his love of music and the theater; at others among working people or the aristocracy; above all in the past. This man, described by Edmond de Goncourt in 1874 as having “fallen in love with modern life,” had by now turned powerfully against it. Success meant little to him—“de mon temps on n’arrivait pas“—and he was as anxious to link his own painting with that of the past as had been the Monsieur Ingres whom he so revered and alluded to so respectfully. “Revolutionary! Don’t say that. We are tradition itself. It can’t be said too often. And perhaps Titian will say a few words to me as he steps into his gondola.”
But on the whole he hated talking about his art (many years earlier Manet had mocked him as “le grand esthéticien“); “What use is my mind? Granted that it enables me to hail a bus and pay my fare. But once I am inside my studio, what use is my mind? I have my model, my pencil, my paper, my paints. My mind doesn’t interest me.” But even in the studio it would have served him. It would, for instance, have saved him from the episode, referred to by a contemporary journalist who was quoted by Pissarro: the hectoring of his stripped model, who had expressed some doubts about the guilt of Dreyfus: “You’re a Jewess…you’re a Jewess!” “No, no, I’m a Protestant.” “It doesn’t matter, get dressed and go off!” Halévy is characteristically generous about Degas’s behavior at this time. The artist, he explains, used to employ his maid to read aloud to him during meals, and would listen quite uncritically to the historical novels of Dumas, which were among his favorite books. “But Degas happened to change authors”—and thereafter he listened with equal conviction to the less attractive romances of the notorious anti-Semite Drumont. And so he broke with the Jewish Halévys. Both sides suffered. Daniel continued to see him occasionally and he gives us a marvelous picture of Degas, now aged seventy-four and almost totally blind, coming to make one final call, after a ten-year interruption, when his father Ludovic died. He insisted on climbing the stairs to peer at his old friend. “It was dark, Degas, in a loud, dictatorial voice, clamored for ‘Light, lots of light!’ ” Some years later, not long before his own death, a friend, Mme. Ganderax, said to him in front of a painting: “Bravo Degas! That is the Degas we love, not the Degas of the Affair.” To which he replied “Madame, it is the whole Degas who wishes to be loved.”
Despite this moving plea, despite Halévy’s sympathy, many people have echoed Mme. Ganderax’s distinction. But can the Degas of the Affair—and the happier Degas who appears so often in these pages—help us to understand Degas the painter? A bachelor, of whom no love affairs are recorded, he was obsessed with women. No painter has left us such a record, ranging from the awkward and charming petits rats of the Opera to the obscene prostitutes of the most squalid brothels (drawings and monotypes of these and many other women are reproduced in M. Rouart’s useful catalogue of his works in the Belgrade Museum, which also includes a group of Renoirs, most of them likely to appeal to few apart from that master’s most fanatical admirers). This obsession he succeeded in concealing behind a smokescreen of cynical jokes which have been recorded by all his biographers. And his reticence has been abetted by most critics who have spoken of his exclusive interest in movement and formal problems. But can anyone gaze so frequently at women’s breasts, buttocks, arms, and hips, and concentrate only on formal problems? Forgetting everything he said, looking at his drawings, pastels, and paintings, do we really find in them that total indifference, if not actual cruelty, which is said to be characteristic of him? Such a view presupposes on our part a very narrow appreciation of woman, turns her indeed into the angel or demon of nineteenth-century convention. Has a lover never gazed with admiration, satisfied with the reality, at a girl climbing out of a bath, scrubbing her back, getting into bed? Surely Degas, cut off by who knows what timidity from forming more direct relationships with women, explored them with a range of emotions which extended from tenderness to disgust, and which by no means—rather the reverse—excluded the erotic. Why do critics wish to compress so easily the paradoxical and conflicting emotions that they would acknowledge in any writer, indeed in themselves, and deny their range to an artist, the evidence of whose complexity is apparent on every page of this, as of other books about him? There need be no conflict between close observation, scrupulous mastery of form, and the most intense emotion. “To think that in another age I would have been painting Susanna and the Elders,” he said on one occasion. But did he not at least once paint a Toilet of Bathsheba (the Metropolitan La Toilette) which is even more tender than the painting of that subject by Rembrandt, which it seems to echo?
The French edition of M. Halévy’s book appeared some four years ago. Miss Curtiss tells us that he was revising it until the end of his life in 1962. One can therefore assume that the many changes between that version and the present one were made by him. It has been well edited and translated, and it contains a most attractive memoir of the author himself. Strange destiny of Degas to bring out so much affection all around!