• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Degas in the Evening

Degas as a Collector

exhibition at the National Gallery, London, through August 26, 1996.. Catalog of the exhibition, by Ann Dumas
London: Apollo Magazine Ltd./National Gallery Publications, 77 pp., £21.95

Degas: Beyond Impressionism The Art Institute of Chicago, September 30, 1996-January 5, 1997.

exhibition at the National Gallery, London, through August 26, 1996;. Catalog of the exhibition, by Richard Kendall
London: National Gallery Publications/Yale University Press, 324 pp., $50.00


At death,” wrote Larkin, “you break up: the bits that were you/Start speeding away from each other for ever….” Degas died in September 1917, and the bits that belonged to him started speeding away from each other soon after. He had thought of trying to keep them together, in a museum of his own, but that fantasy had not survived the trip in 1903 to the Gustave Moreau museum, which gave him the sinister feeling of being in a family vault. He had thought of giving the best of them to the Louvre—then, he said, he would go and sit in front of them and contemplate what a fine thing he had done for his nation. But that noble urge never bore fruit, and anyway he later came to despise the Louvre, as we shall see.

So it happened that in the end everything came under the hammer—works that he had painted in his youth, and had never let go of; works he had produced in old age, and that few had ever seen; paintings, drawings, and prints he had collected—a spiritual hoard. It took three of the greatest firms in the field—Bernheim-Jeune, Durand-Ruel, and Vollard—to catalog this material and organize its dispersal in seven auctions. When the first of those catalogs went out, showing the quality of Degas’s collection, everyone could see that this was an event of exceptional importance.

In England, Bloomsbury swung into effective action. Roger Fry showed the catalog to Sir Charles Holmes, the director of the National Gallery, whose funds had been cut off during the course of the Great War.1 Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell bent the ear of Maynard Keynes, who was then at the Treasury. And Keynes had one of his brilliant ideas.2

Under the current agreements with the French Treasury, the British were entitled to offset British government expenditure in France against their already huge loans to the French government. Since there was very little prospect of these loans being repaid until the distant future, and since there was even some question of the interest being paid in the short term, it made sense—so Keynes argued—for some of the payment to be converted, as it were, into pictures. The British government would ask the French to place the franc equivalent of å£20,000 to the credit of the British Embassy in Paris. Holmes would then sneak across to Paris and spend this French money on French masterpieces.

It was an imaginative way to be planning at that stage of the war, for between Degas’s death and the first sale of his collection on March 26, 1918, the Russians had withdrawn from the fighting, leaving the Germans in a position to advance on Paris, which was now within the range of their heavy guns. The entire Degas collection came close to destruction when the house opposite Durand-Ruel’s gallery was shelled a couple of days before the sale. To a conventional mind, this might seem the wrong time to go shopping. And certainly to many conventional minds of that era it would be the wrong time to go shopping for modern French art. Lord Redesdale, the grandfather of the Mitford sisters, called it a “degraded craze” in a memorandum he wrote in 1914 to his fellow trustees of the National Gallery: “I should as soon expect to hear of a Mormon service in St. Paul’s Cathedral as to see an exhibition of the works of the modern French Art-Rebels in the sacred precincts of Trafalgar Square.”

Keynes’s proposal, however, found favor with Lord Curzon. Conveniently enough, Holmes would be able to join Keynes and Austen Chamberlain and other members of the International Financial Mission on their way to the Inter Ally Conference in Paris, which coincided with the auction. This would be his cover. But he also shaved off his mustache and donned a pair of spectacles before making his way to Charing Cross. The Mission crossed the Channel with a destroyer escort and a silver airship overhead. Three days before, the British troops had been driven back from their trenches near the Somme, and when Holmes and the others passed by train through Amiens, the city was under German bombardment. Holmes felt something of a thrill at being on “a very feeble kind of active service.”

He checked in at the Crillon, then went, with Chamberlain and Keynes, to the preview of the sale at Georges Petit’s auction rooms. Chamberlain was sympathetic to most of Holmes’s proposed purchases, except the El Greco. This was a small version of Saint Ildefonso (now at the National Gallery in Washington), which, as Degas had noted with pleasure after purchasing it, used to hang over Millet’s bed. Chamberlain said, jocularly but worryingly, that if Holmes purchased the El Greco he would hesitate about signing the check. Nonetheless, Holmes made a mental calculation that he should be prepared to pay up to å£3,000 for it.

Paris auctions were bizarre practices for Holmes, and despite some careful coaching he found it disconcerting, on the day, that the auctioneers did not take the lots in numerical order but darted instead around the catalog, in order to give prominence to minor items, and to keep the bidders on their toes. Adding to the tension was the fact that, an hour into the proceedings, shells began to fall: the Germans had aimed “Big Bertha” at Paris. “There was quite a considerable rush to the door,” says Holmes, “at least one prominent Paris dealer being among the fugitives.”

This kept some, but not all, prices low. The Ingres portrait M. de Norvins went to the National Gallery for a third of what Holmes had been prepared to pay for it, but he had to fight for a large Delacroix, Baron Schwiter, and in so doing he antagonized the room. People stood up and looked at him. They said, “It’s for the Louvre, Monsieur” and “You are fighting against the Louvre.” Holmes took the view that it was better to face a little trouble now than to suffer permanent regret for funking, and he went on to buy some pieces of Manet’s Execution of Maximilian, an early Corot, and “several other useful things.” The next day he was not so lucky, being outbid on several lots, including the El Greco, and even—perhaps through wearing those spectacles—buying certain drawings by mistake.

Holmes was not, apparently, a reckless man. He bought twenty-seven items in the two days, including drawings for the British Museum, but Keynes could not persuade him to bid for a small Cézanne study of apples—so Keynes purchased it himself. In all, Holmes spent just over half his allocation, å£11,780, and yet tells us that he failed to get the best Gauguins. One has to remember that he would not have been praised—might well have been sacked—for buying Gauguins at too high a price. He notes with satisfaction that the one he bought, A Vase of Flowers, was accepted by the Trustees on his return.

Keynes pitched in and helped pack up the purchases, which wasn’t easy since everyone was trying to leave Paris, and packing cases were hard to find. So were seats on trains, but fortunately, the Inter Ally Conference being over, the Mission had a carriage booked on the evening train to Boulogne. The conference had been a farce, but on the first day of the Degas sale, while the British Army was still in retreat, the British and French military leaders met in Doullens, and the British generals, without consulting the War Cabinet, agreed to accept the military command of General Foch. Defeat was in the air but General Foch had said: “Why aren’t you fighting? I would fight without a break, I would fight in front of Amiens…. I would fight all the time.”3 It was the low point, but it was also the turning point, of the war.

Holmes, Keynes, and Chamberlain trundled back past Amiens, eating strange meals such as a breakfast of chocolate, bread, and sauternes, looking over some of the purchases, discussing interest payments, trout fishing, and “whether America would not soon possess all the gold in the world, while Europe would only have paper.” At Boulogne, the Delacroix in its huge case was hoisted on board and stacked “in comparative shelter”—that is, it made the Channel crossing on deck. They went in convoy with two hospital ships, and at Folkestone they had to wait an hour in rough seas while the wounded disembarked. Then Holmes found that the railway van was too small for the Delacroix, which would have to follow by the next train. That night, he awaited it at his club in London. He had secured a handcart and four porters, and two lanterns. The case arrived, and the group set off from Charing Cross up the side of Trafalgar Square, reaching the National Gallery at 11:20 PM.

Chamberlain, meanwhile, had driven Keynes to Charleston. Vanessa Bell wrote the next day to Roger Fry:

Maynard came back suddenly and unexpectedly late last night having been dropped off at the bottom of the lane by Austen Chamberlain in a government motor, and said he had left a Cézanne by the roadside! Duncan rushed off to get it and you can imagine how exciting it all was…. I believe it is to be kept a secret about the National Gallery pictures, till after the war.4

A couple of weeks later, on April 15, Virginia Woolf went to see Keynes in London at 46 Gordon Square:

Nessa left the room and reappeared with a small parcel about the size of a large slab of chocolate. On one side are painted 6 apples by Cézanne.5 Roger very nearly lost his senses. I’ve never seen such a sight of intoxication. He was like a bee on a sunflower. Imagine snow falling outside, a wind like there is in the Tube, an atmosphere of yellow grains of dust, and all of us gloating upon these apples. They really are very superb. The longer one looks the larger and heavier and greener and redder they become. The artists amused me very much, discussing whether he’d used veridian or emerald green, and Roger knowing the day, practically the hour, they were done by some brush mark in the background.6

A little bit of Degas had made its way safely to Bloomsbury.


Degas’s great collecting phase belongs to the last decade of the nineteenth century, while the expression “beyond Impressionism” (the title of the recent London show would have irritated Degas) refers to everything the artist did between the eighth and last Impressionist show in Paris in 1886 and his death over thirty years later. The other exhibition (not coming to Chicago), “Degas as a Collector,” brought together over forty objects which Degas had once owned, including such far-flung delights as Cézanne’s Bather with Outstretched Arm, now in the collection of Jasper Johns, a van Gogh still life from Chicago’s holdings, and a Daumier from Wales.

  1. 1

    See C.J. Holmes, Self and Partners (MacMillan, 1936), pp. 335- 343.

  2. 2

    I have relied on “Keynes and the Degas Sale” by Anne Emberton, History Today (January 1996), pp. 22-28.

  3. 3

    See A.J.P. Taylor, The First World War (1963; reprinted by Penguin, 1966), p. 218.

  4. 4

    Cited by Emberton, in “Keynes and the Degas Sale,” p. 26.

  5. 5

    Actually seven.

  6. 6

    Letter to Nicholas Bagenal, in Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann, editors, The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Volume II: 1912-1922 (Harcourt Brace, 1976), p. 230.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print