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 …