Degas Landscapes 21April 3, 1994, and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, April 24July 3, 1994
No matter how the wind shifts, Degas’s stock is solid. For those whose conservative tastes favor representation, Degas was the most scrupulous draughtsman of the Impressionists—the slowest to cast off the spell of academic training, with its tedious but useful copying from museum masterpieces and “the antique”; the drawing in even Degas’s oldest, most furiously rapt pastels of nude bathers is deliciously correct. For those whose tastes ask of an artist a certain individual violence—a personal expressionism that creates rather than imitates nature—Degas presents a model restlessness and willingness to experiment. His formal manners belong to the nineteenth century, but his artistic ruthlessness and freedom to the twentieth. His eccentric perspectives, his truncated compositions, his increasingly daring juxtapositions of color make us reflect, in modern style, upon the operations of perception—or, more precisely, upon the synthetic tensions that occur when a vision in three dimensions is reduced to a two-dimensional colored surface.
The exhibition Degas Landscapes at the Metropolitan Museum surprises us with its very title, for Degas is a painter of closely observed and intimately felt interiors—theaters and living rooms and salles de bain. His early mythological panoramas savor of airless studio assembly and even the racehorses in his pictures partake of human enclosure and control. Man’s presence is not a mere incident in Degas’s world, as it is in Monet’s and the late Cézanne’s, but pivotal and ubiquitous. Yet as a young man he took the requisite tour of Italy, and among the souvenirs of his three years there brought back little plein-air landscapes and some characteristically painstaking pencil renderings of Mt. Vesuvius and the landscape outside Rome. He filled sketchbooks with scenic notations and descriptions, we read in Richard Kendall’s handsome and thorough catalog, Degas Landscapes.
Already proficient in portraiture, Degas painted a number of small oils on paper, of which Italian Landscape Seen through an Arch (1856) is one of the earliest and most finished. It has, in its slight tilt, a pinch of drama, but is basically tame. The stucco or stone arch is well represented; the green landscape seen though it is indistinct and blackened. A watercolor sketch from the same period—in the Louvre, and not exhibited, though reproduced in Kendall’s book—captures more charmingly the sense of a sunny outdoors seen from within. The Convent of Santa Trinità dei Monti Seen from a Tower of the Villa Medici (c. 1859–1860) is pleinair, all right, as its title announces, and has a radiant sky, but its largest feature is a cloud that looks implausible. With all the puffy, boiling, streaking, evanescent variety of natural nebulosity, most any brushstroke will answer to some heavenly formation—not these, however. One looks perhaps too earnestly over this first set of landscape studies, along the first wall of the exhibit, for something to distinguish them from those of a thousand other skilled young painters; they have a calm and dutiful air, and the …