The Metropolitan’s great Edgar Degas retrospective is one of those unsettling experiences that enrich the soul by saddening the heart. Here are nearly four hundred paintings, drawings, bronzes, and even photographs, and there is not a smile among them if we discount the grisly leers of the prostitutes. Much of Degas’s mystery comes to abide in a sustained power to charm without ever stooping to seduce us. He may well have been the last of the great narrative painters, and his narratives are almost always enigmas. Who is this woman who weeps in a corner of the hotel chamber, and who is this man who stands stiff and silent with his back against the door as far from her as he can get without fleeing outright, and what fresh trespass or what old crime had put them together and set them so far apart in the same narrow room?
Degas’s models were always the old Greek and the old Tuscan, and he probably wouldn’t mystify us as much as he does if he had worked centuries earlier in Florence or Athens. The Renaissance may not have always been sure of itself, but its ruling class generally was. Nineteenth-century France couldn’t be.
Life had become a puzzle, and one solution for the artist was to turn from despairing thoughts of man to celebrations of nature. Degas declined that chance to escape. He went on wrestling with man. To contemplate the works of man had already begun to mean confronting the sort of questions that baffle, and that, we may suppose, is why Degas had often confounded us until we could see him in this mass at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and recognize that his earliest assumption and final judgment was that man’s steadiest employment is in making woman his victim.
In the course of a conscious life that lasted from the 1848 French revolution into the First World War, artists as separated by time and inclination as Berthe Morisot and Pablo Picasso, who are inarguably assessors superior to myself, thought Degas a cold man and a cold painter. Why then does the Metropolitan’s show caress us so continuously with the gesture of pity?
The pity this gesture expresses is invariably for women, and the pity it evokes is for martyrs for whom God has died, taking away the last hope of reward anywhere. The most strangely beautiful of the historical paintings of Degas’s apprenticeship bears the title Scenes of War in the Middle Ages and shows horsemen departing some place of sack and pillage just when one of them turns, almost as an afterthought, to shoot his arrows in the direction of a clutter of naked and, we take it, ravished women.
He progressed to become for a while the recorder of dreadful marriages, generally in his own family. His sister, Thérèse, stares in the distraction of her pain while one hand hopelessly implores the shoulder of a husband removed to the distractions of self-concern. Degas then turned from the horrors of his class to the toils of the lower orders, and he saw laundresses and dancers in the common likeness of the working-girl worn down by the man who directs her day.
Finally there is no joy in the ballet pictures. Their dancers contrive the effects of the ethereal now and then but only when the ballet master has his eye on his watch, and, when he hasn’t, they droop as spent as any slavey at the ironing board.
The laundress pauses to yawn, and so does the balletiste at the rehearsal, and each one’s face is fixed in the same cast of surrender to the besiegements of her weariness. The dancer in the wings waits her turn with her left arm lifted in anguish to her head, and we have been carried back to the old Greek and Niobe in her tears, and commence to understand that Degas’s is a world where Woman can know nothing better than to suffer and Man nothing better than to be bored. What he must have meant to say all along was that neither can be free until He lets Her go, and that is a most unexpected message from a Frenchman of the nineteenth century.
October 27, 1988