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Degas in Chicago

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

exhibition at the National Gallery, London, May 22–August 26, 1996;, Catalog of the exhibition by Richard Kendall
National Gallery, London/ Art Institute of Chicago/ Yale University, 324 pp., $50.00


A week after his dismaying evening with Degas in June 1907,1 Count Harry Kessler was back again for dinner in Vollard’s cellar, to meet one of those artists with whom Degas was no longer on speaking terms: Renoir. Eight years before, in 1899, the two old men had been good friends: they had both fallen in love with the same Cézanne watercolor, at Vollard’s, and had drawn lots to determine who should buy it. Degas had won. In November the same year, Renoir, feeling the pinch, had decided to sell a Degas pastel he had acquired from the Caillebotte estate. Degas had sent him a letter of such impertinence that the falling out had been for good.

On this occasion, Kessler and Renoir appear to have hit it off immediately. They shared an admiration for Maillol’s work, and so had something to talk about. Renoir had seemed at first sickly and senile, suffering badly from the rheumatism that had made his fingers look like tree roots, but as soon as he spoke he became, for Kessler, “a sort of Prince Charming,” captivatingly fresh and young, with the manner of a twenty-year-old.

The company was similar to the previous week’s: Bonnard, José Maria Sert, Mlle. Georges, and the “Creole woman,” Mme. Levell, along with the painter Maxime Dethomas (1867–1929) and another of Vollard’s colonial friends, the poet Paul-Jean Toulet (1867–1920). Vollard tried to set the tone for the evening, with a story about a man who kills his wife by kicking her in the stomach, but earned a rebuke from Renoir, who told him that his story wasn’t funny. It wanted to be funny, but it wasn’t.

The story had come from Octave Mirbeau, whom Vollard believed the greatest writer of their day. Renoir thought Mirbeau a brute, with his continual need for the excessive:

He’s like this butcher who was in Switzerland and saw two mountains. One was four thousand meters, the other three thousand. Naturally he found the one of four thousand meters more beautiful than the other. Mirbeau needs mountains of twelve thousand meters in the landscape. He doesn’t see that beauty is everywhere—on this table, in this glass, just as much as anywhere else…. You have to find beauty everywhere; that’s what the poet does. But Mirbeau, if he wants to paint an apple, it’s not enough for it to be of normal size. He has to have it like that.

Renoir’s tree-root hands described an apple half a meter wide. He recognized that Mirbeau had talent, that he was a searcher after truth, but… “It’s the same story with Courbet,” Renoir went on: “For him, Realism meant painting the head of a peasant woman. As soon as you wanted to paint something pretty, that was no longer Realism. That was called Idealism.”

At this point Sert, misunderstanding Renoir’s point, tried to defend Idealism, saying that one wasn’t always obliged to paint reality.

Who paints Truth?” asked Renoir. “I’ve never even been able to render an eye exactly. And if one did render the truth, perhaps it wouldn’t please us. That’s my quarrel with Degas, who faulted us for calling ourselves Impressionists. He wanted to call himself a Realist. But Impressionist is much more accurate and much more modest.”

They were eating a palm salad, made from the fleshy section at the top of the tree—a surprising dish to find in Paris, even today. Renoir was warming to his theme:

Every artist puts something of himself into what he does, whether he wants to be a Realist or not. Look, take Velázquez and Goya, who were both of them Realists. But when Velázquez paints the members of the Royal family, they all become noblemen, because Velázquez himself was a nobleman. But Goya, when he painted the Royal Family—he made them look like a butcher’s family in their Sunday best, like savages, dressed up in gilded costumes with epaulettes. Everyone puts something of himself [into a painting]. What survives of the artist is the feeling which he gives by means of objects.

And he went on to compare Hogarth with Chardin, and to praise him as the greatest painter of the English School.

So Impressionism, for Renoir, was as much about the impression rendered as the impression received. It was the feeling put into the painting which made it distinctive, and it was the Degas of the later years, more than the soi-disant Realist, whom Renoir truly admired. And at the head of Richard Kendall’s catalog to the current Degas show in Chicago, it is a remark of Renoir’s to Vollard, on a different occasion, that is given pride of place: “If Degas had died at fifty, he would have been remembered as an excellent painter, no more: it is after his fiftieth year that his work broadened out and that he really became Degas.” And again, when Renoir made the remark, “To think that we’re living in an age that has produced a sculptor to equal the ancients! But there’s no danger of his ever getting commissions,” Vollard took him at first as referring to Rodin. Renoir said impatiently:

Who said anything about Rodin? Why, Degas is the greatest living sculptor! You should have seen that bas-relief of his… He just let it crumble to pieces… It was beautiful as an antique. And that ballet dancer in wax!…the mouth…just a suggestion, but what drawing!2

And Renoir never withdrew this admiration for Degas, even if Vollard was obliged to invite the two grand old men on different nights.


Actually there was no quarrel between Renoir and Degas when it came to the conception of Realism. If anything, Degas was less of a Realist than Renoir, if by Realism we imagine a process whereby the painter sits down in front of his subject and attempts to render faithfully what he sees in front of him. Degas stormed around Paris in old age, fulminating against plein-air painters: he thought they should be dispersed with a whiff of grapeshot. He told Daniel Halévy in 1904: “Beauty is a mystery, but no-one knows it any more. The recipes, the secrets are forgotten. A young man is set in the middle of a field and told, ‘Paint.’ And he paints a sincere farm. It’s idiotic.”3

Degas once said that if he were to found an art school, he would rent a house with six floors. He would put the model and the beginners under the roof. As the student progressed he would move to a lower floor, until finally he reached street level. Every time the student wished to consult the model, he would be obliged to climb to the sixth floor again, then redescend.4

So a training in art was a training of the memory. A course of this kind actually existed in the Paris of Degas’s day. It was run by Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran, on lines even stricter than those imagined by Degas. One began by drawing a straight line, of a given length, from memory. The next lesson was to draw a square, and the third, a circle in a square. One could not progress beyond any stage unless one had acquired the previous lesson’s skill—the drawing by memory, always freehand of course, of a given curve, of given dimensions. One progressed through the memorizing of drawings, engravings, or lithographs. One progressed from fragments of human heads to the head itself seen in different aspects, and everything was analyzed first in outline, only later with any shading.

And only at this stage in Lecoq’s course would his students have been allowed into Degas’s imaginary school, to draw from the nude, from memory. At weekends Lecoq would take his most advanced students (who included artists as various as Rodin and Fantin-Latour) to the countryside near Paris, where they bathed in a pond. They found a garden with high walls, where their models could dance around in the buff, and the students were told: remember this gesture, this dance movement, because you will not see it again. And it was on the following Mondays that they would go to their drawing boards and set down what they had seen. But none of this had any necessary connection with Realism—the reverse might be more true. Lecoq wanted his students to forget, where necessary, the common imperfections of his models.

An academy exercise of the nineteenth century, by comparison, is a form of realism. These imperfect nudes, with their creased flesh and their period facial hair, bring with them a strong whiff of the real life of the studio. They have a melancholy beauty, for those who can bear so much imperfection (Nureyev’s apartment in Paris was full of them), so many naked bodies crying out for clothes. Only the poses—which were of course the point of the exercise—are dead. Indeed it is hardly right to class them as poses. Posing is an activity, but these bodies are draped over their supports—cubes and wedges, packing cases, and what look like slabs of cheese to help a foot to maintain the proper angle. Every hand would have tired long since, without the dowel peg set at the right height, or the meaningless staff to clutch. These bodies are not doing what they pretend—that was the objection to them. When they seem beautiful today, it is as disappointed people, waiting for their release.

Lecoq’s system was designed to capture the spirit and freedom of the body in motion. He rented disused rooms in the Palais de Justice, where he had classically dressed models moving around for his students to observe, and to commit to their memory. His method survives in the accounts of Rodin’s studio practice, in which the nude models (men and women on different days, as in a public bathhouse) were left to their own devices, to wander around, stand, or sit as they liked, until Rodin saw something out of the corner of his eye, something that struck him as particularly fresh.

And the success of that method can be seen in the most famous pose of all—the most frequently misremembered pose in art, that of The Thinker. The cartoonists always get this wrong. George Bernard Shaw, who went to the lengths of posing for a photographer as the nude Thinker, gets it wrong.5 Everyone thinks that The Thinker has his right elbow on his right knee, or his left on his left, whereas the pose is much more difficult and idiosyncratic than that. The right elbow is placed just short of the left knee—a pose which forces the back into its sharp forward angle and brings the whole center of gravity so far forward that the figure almost overbalances. Even allowing for the weight of the base, this is liable to happen, and apparently the way those in the trade can easily tell a bad cast of The Thinker is simply by giving it a forward push and seeing if it topples.

  1. 1

    See the account of Degas’s dinner at Vollard’s in the October 3 issue of The New York Review, with an extract from Kessler’s diary of June 19, 1907. Here I draw on his diary for June 27, 1907. Once again, I am grateful to Eberhard Fuchs and the Projekt Harry Graf Kessler for permission to use this material, which is based on a provisional transcript of the manuscript diaries.

  2. 2

    Ambroise Vollard, Degas: an Intimate Portrait (Dover, 1986), p. 59.

  3. 3

    Richard Kendall, editor, Degas by Himself (New York Graphic Society/ Little, Brown, 1987), p. 248.

  4. 4

    Cited by L.D. Luard in the preface to Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran, L’Education de la Mémoire Pittoresque et la formation de l’Artiste (Paris: Laurens, 1920). For this account of Lecoq’s method in practice I have used Petraten-Doesschate Chu, “Lecoq de Boisbaudran and Memory Drawing,” in Gabriel P. Weisberg, editor, The European Realist Tradition (Indiana University Press, 1982).

  5. 5

    Ruth Butler, Rodin: The Shape of Genius (Yale University Press, 1993), p. 392.

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