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 calm is perhaps the Degas touch. Not until he returns to France, however, and copies a small landscape section of Veronese’s Supper at Emmaus do we find, in a blobby chalky unfinished bit of foreground in the right corner, a patch of canvas that somehow says “Degas.”
The next wall of the exhibit shows a number of landscapes with horses, a motif he would pursue off and on for much of his life, into wax statuettes as well as paintings and pastels. Horses have always seemed to me a poor subject for a post-Géricault painter; there is too much drawing to them, their colors are drab, and their nervous animation and old mythic resonances threaten to run off with the painting. A picture with a horse in it tends to become anecdotal. At the Races (c. 1860–1862) is fussily full of background figures and shows, in the jockeys and the starter in the foreground, a gestural animation foreshadowing marvelous Degas theatrics to come. Still, the horses’ many legs overanimate the painting’s lower half, and in two later horse landscapes, Leaving for the Hunt (c. 1863–1865) and The Morning Ride (1865–1868), Degas has left some of the legs unfinished, or cut off by tall grasses. Leaving for the Hunt, as landscape, manages to subdue its many lively details of horses and red-coated riders to an enveloping atmosphere; we feel the transparent space occupied by the scratchy and (in the case of a row of trees in the middle distance) obliterated details, in the heavy morning shadows beneath a pale-orange sky. The Morning Ride, quite unfinished, gives up on its four foreground equestrians and lets the eye travel to the boldly outlined headland in the distance—the first, perhaps, of the massive earth formations that are figured forth in the monotypes, completed between 1890 and 1892, which are Degas’s stunning contributions to the art of landscape painting.
Long before the monotypes, while summering in Normandy in 1869, he achieved his first triumphant rapprochement with landscape, a series of more than forty small pastels, radiant in their predominant blues and browns, of the local beaches and coastal hills. Through mists of chalky color the elemental sand and sea and grass emerge with an effect of Turneresque burning but without Turner’s agitation and rather obtrusive optical doctrines. Degas’s horizon is generally flat and his laying on of tones as level and dispassionate as this verbal notation from that summer:
Villers-sur-Mer, sun-set, cold and dull orange-pink, whitish green, neutral, sea like a sardine’s back and clearer than the sky. Line of the seashore brown, the first pools of water reflecting the orange, the second reflecting the upper sky; in front, coffee-colored sand, rather sombre.
Though modest and quasi-scientific in attempt, the best of these pastels—Beside the Sea, Houses beside the Sea, Cliffs beside the Sea, Seascape at Sunset, the cloudy-sky Beach at Low Tide—show Degas using pastels to get a light-soaked effect more glowing and ethereal than oil paints could create. He does not in every instance overcome the chief problem of pastels, a glancingness and mere prettiness present in, say, Fishing Boats Moored at the Entrance to a Port and the sunnier Beach at Low Tide. On the Cliff arrests us with its steep upward mass of grassy hill abruptly thrust into a concave piece of clear blue sky, sky that looks stark and unreal until we step back and see it resolve, with the blotches of fuscous green that wander up the hillside, into a rectangle of perfect high summer in its elemental duotone. There is not a speck of shade in sight, while flecks of white give the slope a small population of walkers, feminine in the main. A delicate justice of touch coexists here with a brutality of composition that feels giantesque, and that prepares us for the mighty color monotypes occupying the next museum room.
On the fourth wall of the first room, however, we should observe the small black monotypes Degas executed in the late 1870s, in their varying aspects of tonal subtlety (Factory Smoke, a charming subject) and deliberate crudity (Rest in the Field, tarry as a Dubuffet). Monotype’s curious technique, which consists of applying ink or pigment to a smooth plate of zinc or copper and taking a single print (with a fainter second, called the cognate, sometimes obtained), appealed to Degas, perhaps because it liberated him from his academic compulsion toward definition and refinement—an inveterate experimenter and tinkerer in his studio, he would take years reworking oil canvases, and often added multiple pieces of paper to gouaches and pastels. The substance on the metal plate remains wet and open to adjustment until the print is taken, with a result not strictly foreseeable. Monotype can yield a shadowy richness far more painterly in texture than engraving or crayonned lithograph. The horizontal serenity of Degas’s seaside pastels is replaced, in these little inky landscapes, by a higher horizon and a nocturnal darkness, the visible marks of rag, finger, and brush handle combining, on occasion, to produce a surprising sense of depth and mass. The pastels, begun if not finished on the spot, stemmed from a tranquil seeing; the monotypes come from a brooding studio struggle with a recalcitrant, slippery medium.
Degas’s large color monotypes of 1890–1892 are as well documented, in his own correspondence and in the later reminiscences of companions, as a military campaign. Daniel Halévy recalled Degas’s announcing to him that he had accumulated twenty-one landscapes, describing them casually as “the fruits of my journeys this summer. I stood at the door of the railway carriage, and looked around vaguely.” Asked, then, if the works could be described as “states of mind,” Degas replied, “States of eyes. We do not use such pretentious language.” Halévy elsewhere produced a poetic recollection of Degas
on long train journeys during which he had tried to rest his eyes. Sitting in the corner of a carriage and continually looking, looking as well as he could—how could he not look? the entire occupation of his life was in the spoils of his looking—he had glimpsed, guessed at, perceived valleys, trees, rocks, plains, and back in our Montmartre, dreaming of everything that had taken his fancy, he had taken up his boards, his pastels, working in secret and successfully fixing his memories.
Degas in those years traveled to Belgium, Normandy, the Pyrenees, and Switzerland, but it was a visit in 1890 to the château of Georges Jeanniot, in the village of Diénay in Burgundy, that inspired the first outpour of color monotypes. According to Jeanniot forty years later, in his “Souvenirs sur Degas,” Degas, arriving at Diénay in a horse-drawn carriage, demanded immediately after the welcoming meal to be taken to Jeanniot’s studio. Satisfying himself that the requisite tools and smooth plates were available, he cried, “I have been wanting for so long to make a series of monotypes!” and set to work, as memorably remembered by the enchanted host:
Once supplied with everything he needed, without waiting, without allowing himself to be distracted from his idea, he started. With his strong but beautifully-shaped fingers, his hand grasped the objects, the tools of his genius, handling them with a strange skill and little by little one could see emerging on the metal surfaces a small valley, a sky, white houses, fruit trees with black branches, birches and oaks, ruts full of water after the recent downpour, orangey clouds dispersing in an animated sky, above the red and green earth.
All this fell into place, coming together, the tones setting each other off and the handle of the brush traced clear shapes in the fresh colour.
These lovely things seemed to be created without the slightest effort, as if the model was in front of him.
The passage is prominently quoted in the exhibit, and in truth the monotypes do place us in the presence of creation. The artist kneading, scrubbing, scratching, smearing earth formations into existence is our dominant impression; most awesome and astonishing are those monotypes not retouched with pastel. Without benefit of pastel refinement and elaboration, the 1890 monotypes display a Degas more savage, abstract, visionary, and primitive than we would have thought existed. Landscape in the Mountains in three brown-green chunks studded with oval finger-dabbings; Burgundy Landscape with its gouged stripes of wet brown in suggestion of plowed furrows; Village in l’Estérel and A Wooded Landscape dominated by dark green stains too opaque to yield representational significance; Le Cap Hornu, with its lion-yellow couchant shape wearing a mane of dull green; the scrabbled stripes of L’Estérel; the oleaginous gray speckles sweeping across Squall in the Mountains; the tawny swabbings of Russet Landscape; the floating galactic shape of A Lake in the Pyrenees; the ochre lump of Mountain Effect, in an ocean of wavy scrubbings: These are the work of an artist possessed, prophesying an “action painting” a half-century in the future. Green Landscape is as liquid and untrammeled as a Frankenthaler; L’Estérel as numinously hovering as a Rothko; Russet Landscape as vigorously, evenly worked as a Pollock. Not that such anticipations are needed to validate them; these near-abstract Degases justify themselves in their sheer energy and strange beauty. The image-making activity is here naked and accidental, like the processes of geology, and generates in parallel the forms, bizarre and inevitable, of the earth.
Of the more than twenty monotypes that Degas displayed at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in November of 1892, only one—Burgundy Landscape—was not retouched in pastel. In some cases, the pastel quite covers the original; in others, it points up and restructures only sections. Compared to the raw monotypes, the pastels are relatively conventional and intelligible; nevertheless, they are striking original, bold, and fresh—views of landscapes but also meditations on topography. Influenced by the flattened perspectives of Japanese art, and intended, in this particular suite, to compete with Monet’s sensational series of grainstacks and poplars (exhibited at Durand-Ruel the year before), these works of Degas are both “states of mind” and “states of vision.” An admirer, evidently, of the memory-training techniques of Lecoq de Boisbaudran, and no doubt acquainted with the philosopher Bergson’s explorations of memory—which were so powerfully to influence Proust—Degas repeatedly emphasized the importance of drawing from memory. He told Jeanniot, “It is very good to copy what one sees; it is much better to draw what you can’t see any more but in your memory,” and claimed that if he had an art school, he would put the model on one floor and have the students paint on another. (The plan suggests a lot of thunderingly well-used staircases.) No sketches or notations jotted down in his travels by railway and carriage through Burgundy or the Pyrenees preceded Degas’s monotype-based landscapes; in the dozen years since his attentive, luminous pastels of Normandy, he had learned how to dream the earth into being.
An imaginary vista like An Island in the Sea tells us more about the idea of island-ness than might an actual scene, where an island looks like a peninsula or a strip of sunset. In the same way, a map of an imaginary terrain is more maplike than a real map. Degas’s amoebic orange shape, under a similarly grasping orange cloud, takes hold of the mind. Recarved in the crumbly radiance of pastels, the mountainous forms of various Landscapes acquire different sizes and auras, from the original monotype to the cognate print. In one doubled set, a gloriously vague and golden wheat field (Wheatfield and Green Hill) becomes on the second try a tidy rectangular violet field of flax (The Field of Flax); we like it less well, having become acclimated to Degas’s world of recklessly tinted wilderness and unnameable forms. Even a volcano (Vesuvius) seems diminished in its specificity—a mere local postcard.
It is not surprising, as Degas remolded his monotype blobs, bestowing upon them his characteristic roundedness, that his plastic imagination would revert to human forms he had mastered; he shapes a slender isthmus to resemble a foreshortened ballerina’s leg (Rocky Coast), and jestingly extracts a pneumatic, reclining nude from the bulbous protrusions of Steep Coast, her red hair cascading, petrified, down the cliff. Metamorphosis is what nature is all about. Kendall, in his scrupulous examination of Degas’s cultural context, nominates as a likely influence upon the monotypes the writer Victor Hugo, who enjoyed additional celebrity as a painter. Like the Degas of the monotypes, Hugo—whose drawings had been exhibited as recently as 1888—produced topographical scenes from his travels, teased random blots of ink into semblances, and included fingerprints in his free-form compositions.
After the burst of fruitful violence that fed into the 1892 show at Durand-Ruel, Degas withdrew from landscape as such. The third and final room of the exhibition at the Metropolitan hangs some large canvases executed at the Saint-Valéry-sur-Somme, a village in Picardy where Degas had spent holidays with his family as a child, and where his brother René rented a house three decades later. The oils are townscapes more than landscapes and, perhaps partly owing to Degas’s troubled eyesight, are muddy in color and often left unfinished. A number, heavily outlined, seem deliberate exercises in perspective, and point up what a drag drawing is upon painting, with its net of lines. After the confident color explosions of the pastelled monotypes, these laborious canvases seem dreary and tentative, though not without, in the View of Saint-Valéry-sur-Somme and Houses at the Foot of a Cliff, a melancholy impressiveness. There is a suggestion, in the piling-on of cubes and the predominance of orange and green, of Cézanne, and even, in the quasi-primitive Return of the Herd, of Gauguin, but nothing like the vitality of either painter, or of the sun-soaked landscapes of an earlier Degas. We end with several paintings in which landscape figures potently as background; the pinkish tints of Racehorses in a Landscape (1894) echo from sweated horse-flank to mountaintops dipped in red glow, and the fauve colors of the swirling figures of Russian Dancers (1899) extend into the vivid background. Wherever you look in nature, his outdoor exercises taught Degas, color is in motion.