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Degas in the Evening

Degas as a Collector

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

1.

“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.

2.

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.

Ann Dumas, one of the curators of the exhibition, wrote the catalog, in which she emphasizes the focus Degas gave to his collecting. She seems to have established that the artist could, had he wanted to, have afforded to purchase Old Master drawings. But this was not to be his field. It is hard to measure what Degas could or could not afford. Having spent many years working off the debts of his family bank, he felt he was always on the verge of penury, even in the period under consideration, when his paintings began to fetch large sums. Probably he never really knew what his situation was. He assigned to his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel the task of acting as his banker, and simply applied for money as he needed it. The fact that his estate in the end raised over ten million francs does not mean that he ever felt rich.

He acquired works of art in two main ways, by purchases and by exchanges with friends. Both sorts of acquisition tell us a great deal about Degas as an artist and a man. The celebrated Young Girl arranging her Hair by Mary Cassatt (Washington, National Gallery) hung in his apartment—one of his exchanges. It is a most Degas-like painting, and yet Degas, who was sensitive to being ripped off, clearly felt that the relationship between Cassatt’s and his own work was perfectly proper. Her overt homage was not unwelcome. But many of the other exchanges have unpleasant stories attached.

In Lisbon there is a Degas portrait that was identified by Theodore Reff as depicting Henri Michel-Lévy, a minor Impressionist. In this disturbing study, the artist apparently leans in the corner against one of his pictures, while a bonneted mannequin lies at his feet. (See illustration on opposite page.) Degas and Michel-Lévy swapped portraits of each other, and Michel-Lévy, though he was apparently not hard up, later sold his Degas for a large sum. Degas told him: “You have done a despicable thing; you knew very well that I couldn’t sell your portrait.” It is a merciless remark (Michel-Lévy has indeed apparently more or less disappeared as a painter, although the photograph Reff shows of his work looks decorative enough) but one cannot deny that Degas had cause for complaint. Perhaps as the years went by Michel-Lévy looked in the picture as in a mirror and saw what Reff describes—“a withdrawn and disillusioned man,” a failure. Perhaps he did not like this.7

There are so many stories of Degas breaking up with friends—with George Moore, the Irish writer, with the painter Jacques-Emile Blanche, with Manet (temporarily)—that one cannot help thinking that Degas was predisposed to expect his friendships to end in some kind of betrayal. And then there was also the Dreyfus Affair, which not only divided Degas from his many Jewish friends but also split the whole artistic community. It began in 1894 and by the next year Degas was so nationalistic and anti-Semitic as to put his friendship with the family of Ludovic Halévy (the famous librettist) under strain. In the autumn of 1897, Degas came to dine at Halévy’s for the last time. Ludovic’s son Daniel described the scene:

Degas remained silent…. His lips were closed; he looked upwards almost constantly as though cutting himself off from the company that surrounded him. Had he spoken it would no doubt have been in defense of the army, the army whose traditions and virtues he held so high, and which was now being insulted by our intellectual theorizing. Not a word came from those closed lips, and at the end of the dinner Degas disappeared. The next morning my mother read without comment a letter addressed to her and, hesitating to accept its significance, she handed it in silence to my brother Elie. My brother said, “It is the language of exasperation.”8

Degas’s character seems to have been like one of those tapestries in which certain colors fade over the years, leaving others wrongly predominant. No doubt the exasperation had always been there, but it finally took over from what so many of his friends and admirers had valued—his intelligence. “That beautiful intelligence had faded away some time ago,” wrote Mary Cassatt after the funeral.

But because these stories of his great hatreds and rages are so striking, they get in the way of the preceding stories of great friendships. Henri Loyrette calls one of the chapters of his Degas biography “Ainsi fait l’homme qui veut finir et mourir tout seul, sans bonheur aucun,” “That’s the behavior of someone who wants to finish up and die all alone, without any happiness.”9 One turns eagerly to find the author of this perceptive description of the late Degas. It is Degas himself in middle age, in one of his letters, apologizing for not having inquired about the condition of a friend’s sick wife.

Degas valued loyalty, and was known as loyal, and his collection itself displays a quality of loyalty—loyalty to the friends he admired or was able to support with occasional purchases, and loyalty to the French tradition of the nineteenth century from which he sprang: Delacroix, Ingres, and Daumier were the artists he revered, the three great draughtsmen. The star paintings, the ones he daydreamed about giving to the Louvre, were the Ingres portraits of M. and Mme. Leblanc (which Durand-Ruel, in that first auction, secured for the Metropolitan Museum in New York). With Ingres and Delacroix he went for focus—sketches and studies for works he admired. With Daumier he went comprehensive—he owned 1800 lithographs. With Manet he tried to assemble the complete graphic work, and to reassemble the cut-up canvas of The Execution of Maximilian.

And then there was that opposing tendency—not disloyal, exactly, but guaranteed to undermine the friendships that he cherished. It was a desire to shut himself off, to barricade himself against his friends, to suppress everything around himself and, once he had achieved utter solitude, to annihilate himself, to kill himself with disgust. That is the feeling he described at the age of fifty, when he felt blocked and impotent.10 But he had a quarter century of working life ahead of him, and over thirty years of plain old living to endure.

3.

A short time ago, while pursuing some research in the Kessler diaries at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach, I noticed that Kessler had met Degas at Vollard’s place in Paris, and had made a detailed record of the evening’s conversation. (It is printed below.) There is, of course, no shortage of anecdotes about Degas, but a great number of the most famous ones were set down many years after the event and have of course the unreliability of much-repeated tales. You can see the process at work in the evening Kessler describes—an evening of avid scandalmongering, in which favorite stories are rehearsed, and witticisms recycled, and old hobbyhorses brought out yet again. Those wonderful books about Degas by Vollard and Valéry,11 which have been comprehensively plundered by later writers, are full of privileged glimpses and vivid unreliability. But Kessler’s account is at least set down, as is clear from its detail, within hours of the conversation it records with such evident distaste.

Harry Graf Kessler (born 1868) kept a diary from 1880, when he was a prep-school boy in Ascot, to his death in exile in France in 1937. He was trilingual, and the diary begins in English before turning suddenly and without explanation to German, but he seems to have tried to record important conversations in their original language. When Maillol or Vuillard or Rodin speaks, he will usually be recorded in French. The diaries thus form a large and only partially tapped resource for scholars of art as well as political history. They are currently being transcribed by the Projekt Harry Graf Kessler in Marbach, with the intention of making them available on CD-ROM. I have based my translation on a provisional text from this work in progress, and I am grateful to Eberhard Fuchs and the Projekt for permission to reproduce it here.

Kessler began life in European high society, and was a very conventional young man, with all the prejudices one would expect. His first encounter with modern French art at the 1890 Salon des Indépendants was not a success. He records “violet trees in a red field beneath a yellow sky, women with their faces all covered with red spots as if they had the measles, trees looking like a battle of demented serpents; I have never seen anything so terrible in my most painful nightmares….”12 But in a few years he was to become one of the most prominent champions in Germany of this kind of painting, which was why he would have been a welcome guest at Vollard’s shop.

The dinners in Vollard’s cellar, as Vollard himself tells us in his memoirs,13 were an institution. Bonnard painted one such evening, in which Kessler is present. The cellar lay beneath the shop in the rue Laffitte. It was divided between kitchen and dining room, and regularly became extremely hot. The main course was always chicken curry.

Degas tells Kessler he has come from the Gare du Nord. If he set out from his own home in the rue Victor-Massé, this would mean he had done two sides of a triangle, since a brief walk down the rue des Martyrs would have brought him directly into the rue Laffitte. But riding on the omnibus was a favorite pastime of Degas’s old age—clearly he was whiling away the time before dinner, enjoying the experience of hurtling down the rue de Lafayette.

Degas’s complaint that the painter Forain, who was late, wouldn’t have kept a duchess waiting reminds us of the theory that a part of Degas’s problem was that he wanted to be treated like nobility. Also, one of his sisters was a duchess of sorts (a Neapolitan duchess), so it is a bit like saying “Forain wouldn’t dare treat my sister like this.”

Forain was one of the colleagues to whom Degas was drawn closer as a result of the Dreyfus Affair, which estranged him from his Jewish and Dreyfusard friends. Forain and Caran d’Ache had founded the violently anti-Semitic magazine Psst…! A week after the conversation at Vollard’s, Vuillard tells Kessler what Forain said at the beginning of the Affair: “Nous sommes du bon côté: les ‘cons’ sont avec nous“—we are on the right side: the “assholes” are with us. Vuillard had a low opinion of Forain as a painter: “Il n’a jamais fait que de l’enluminure,” he told Kessler: he had never done more than illumination, he was essentially an illustrator.14 Degas is known to have shared this low opinion. Forain paints, he said, “with his hand in my pocket.”

Forain arrives late at Vollard’s and keeps the company waiting for his news, in which he takes an evidently malicious pleasure. The story concerns a row which to this day has never been fully elucidated, between the Prince de Wagram, a fantastic, Proustian figure mentioned in Le Côté de Guermantes as “a young prince who liked impressionists and driving,” and the art-dealing brothers, the Bernheims.

Alexandre Berthier, the Prince de Wagram (1883-1918) was a phenomenal bulk-buyer of great art: he is said to have owned fifty Renoirs, forty-seven van Goghs, forty Monets, twenty-eight Cézannes, and so on, all of them acquired in a very brief period between 1905 and the month before Kessler’s visit to Vollard. He had most of the galleries in Europe working for him, and he went into partnership with the Bernheim brothers and their cousin Jos Hessel as a sleeping director, under an agreement drawn up in January 1907 and registered on February 12. By April he was disillusioned.

According to Apollinaire, who published a short article on the subject, the Bernheims would buy a painting for 10,000 francs but tell the prince it had cost 50,000. Wagram tested their honesty by arranging for a painting to be sold to them—this at least was the story. It didn’t stand up in court, and an amicable settlement was reached a year later. But Wagram had many other accounts to settle with other dealers, and from 1909 on the collection began to be sold. A large proportion of it is now dispersed throughout the great American museums.15

Vollard and Bonnard do not share Forain’s glee at the imminent fall of the Bernheims, for the good reason that Vollard has his own partnership deals with them (they had collaborated, in the previous year, in the purchase of Cézanne’s estate) while Bonnard had, up to a couple of days before the evening Kessler describes, been exhibiting ten canvases in one of the Bernheim shows.

The pitiless cynicism of Forain’s attitude to the Jews seems to contrast with the choleric outburst by Degas. But note the precise occasion for that first outburst. It is the contemplation of the story, passed on by Forain, of Bernheim père’s helping the defeated French soldiers in Belgium after the Prussian victory at Sedan. It is the thought that a Jew would have seen France’s loss of honor, would have pitied it, would have helped French soldiers to abandon their uniforms and flee. This sense that the great issue for Degas is the honor of France and of its army takes us straight back to the spirit of the Dreyfus Affair, which was supposed to be essentially over in 1899 (although Dreyfus was not formally cleared until 1906).

Linda Nochlin asks, in her essay on Degas’s anti-Semitism,16 whether Degas would have made any connection between his actual experience of his many Jewish friends and the virulent sentiments of the anti-Semitic literature he had his housekeeper read to him at breakfast. One supposes, on the evidence here presented, that he could perfectly well have. In recounting a quarrel over money between the Bernheims and the Prince de Wagram, Forain certainly takes the line that the Bernheims are in the right and that the Prince de Wagram is a swindler—but that doesn’t help the Bernheims either with Forain or with Degas. Nochlin is persuasive in her analysis of the “status anxiety” behind Degas’s anti-Semitism. Degas’s antecedents were not noble but had pretensions to nobility when they wrote their name de Gas. One sees the anxiety in his fear that if education becomes general, his position as an artist will be undermined; so the villains who are promoting education must be Protestants and Jews.

The high degree of sexual anxiety around the table is most striking. Kessler as a homosexual would have had most to fear from the conversation about how one can detect a man’s sexual preferences. And yet there is a curiously needling element to the talk for Degas as well. After all, no one has found “traces” of any romantic involvement with women in Degas’s biography; where does Forain’s formulation—if you don’t like women, you certainly like men—leave Degas, who was known as a misogynist (although of course he had many female friends)? Forain’s rather rough mockery of José Maria Sert for chickening out of a marriage for fear of congenital Neapolitan pox has its double edge for Degas, whose family were part Neapolitan and who suffered a congenital defect of some kind that was turning him blind.

Degas’s mention of Wilde reminds us that he knew Wilde in the days before his fall. Oscar had said to him once, “You know how well known you are in England?” and Degas had replied: “Fortunately less so than you.”17 Degas’s wit, when he was witty, had been of that sort, sharp and fearless, brutal if need be. Valéry’s epithets for him at Henri Rouart’s Friday evenings—“faithful, sparkling, unbearable”—describe him at the period when he was still thought good company. But even Valéry gave up on Degas as he became “more fierce, more absolute and unbearable.” That Kessler should not have maintained the acquaintance is hardly surprising. He had embarked upon it just too late.

4.

The extract from Harry Graf Kessler’s diary follows:

Paris 19 June 1907 Wednesday

Early from London to Paris. Ate at Vollard’s. He had arranged a dinner to bring me together with Degas. Beside us there were Forain, Bonnard and Sert,18 and three women, of whom two were referred to as “Mademoiselle”: one a small French brunette, Mlle. Georges, the other a Russian who came in her automobile and had the allure of a great lover from the Comédie Française, half grande dame, half grande cocotte. The honors were done by Mme. Levell, a Creole 19 from Jamaica, mature but attractively gay, and with red artificial roses in her hair—Degas cannot bear fresh flowers.

Degas, whom I had never seen, surprised me with the nobility and purity of his expression. He looks like a distinguished grandfather, or rather the face is that of a man of the world—but the eye—the eye is that of an apostle untouched by the world. The incipient blindness, which almost excludes the use of his eyes, adds something harmonious to this naiveté. In demeanor he was alternately taciturn and agitated.

He directed his first wrath against Forain, who was not on time: “If this were a duchess’s, he’d be well on time. He’s becoming genreux [Kessler’s note: snobbish], very snobbish—Forain.” Since he cannot bear waiting and always demands to eat at exactly half past seven, we went to table without Forain. It was explained to Degas that Forain always came late, even with duchesses. “Why? He has an automobile. Me, I only ever take the omnibus and I don’t arrive late.” He took this occasion to explain that he had arrived in the neighborhood five minutes early from the Gare du Nord. “I wanted to take the opportunity to go and check my watch against those in Guérin’s, in the rue du Helder, but I couldn’t find it any more. Has he moved, Guérin?” None of the oldest of those present knew anything about Guérin, who, as it turned out, had had his shop nearby during the Second Empire.

After a sharply spiced Negro curry, Vollard’s speciality,20 which Degas refused with abhorrence, Forain arrived, the most unrestrained joy suffusing his smooth-shaven old malicious actor’s face. At first he left all questions unanswered as to why he was so happy. “At this moment I am eating. I’m not here for anyone, as Maître Jacques says.” After he had sated himself with an enormous pile of rice with pepper, saffron, and curried meat, he blurted out: “But you don’t know the news, ladies and gentlemen? Must I be the one to inform you? Well, the Hand of Justice has swept down on our old friends the Bernheims.21 The experts are at their house. The Prince de Wagram is claiming three million from them. What’s his charge against them? Forgery—forged documents, false inventories, swindling.”

Everyone: “What? Is Wagram breaking the contract that he signed?”

Forain: “Wagram signed it, but Rothschild had second thoughts [a réfléchi].”

Vollard and Bonnard looked gloomy at this, but Forain became even merrier. He was asked whether the Bernheims’ misfortune was the cause of his good spirits. “Yes, perhaps. Although, basically, in this matter I am for the Bernheims and against the Prince. When you bear the name of Wagram, you don’t accuse others of swindling. You’re a swindler yourself. And then the Bernheims have always been very good with me. But that doesn’t stop them from being Jews.”

Sert quoted what the old Bernheim said once to Forain: “You know very well, Monsieur Forain, one is only good at selling things one likes.”

Forain confirmed this, and continued: “One day, I was chatting with Bernheim père, and he said to me: ‘You see, Monsieur Forain, I too am a patriot, but I don’t like war. When I was on the battlefield at Sedan, and I saw all those poor people to whom we gave old clothes so they could pass the frontier, I had enough of war.’ At that, I asked him: ‘But tell me Monsieur Bernheim, what the devil you were doing on the battlefield at Sedan?’ And he replied: ‘You see, Monsieur Forain, we were not yet French in those days. We were Belgians. We were following the ambulances.”‘22

Degas, who up to now had listened silently, roared out: “How can you ‘chat’ with people like that? Come on—with a Belgian Jew who’s a naturalized Frenchman? It’s as if you wanted to chat with a hyena, a boa constrictor. These people aren’t of the same humanity as us.”

The conversation turned to the visit that Vollard, the Creole woman, and others wanted to make to a young painter, Chaplin,23 in the Ile St. Louis, on Saturday. Forain: “The one with gold drapes in the john?”

The Creole woman: “I’m astonished you should start there, monsieur. Everything is refined, with him. He has such a beautiful mouth.”

“Yes, I know—small moustache, pretty mouth. You did well to choose a Saturday. You should go there at midnight, at the sabbath hour, the hour for unnatural orgies.”

Vollard: “Indeed, it has always seemed to me there was a slight lack of women at his place.”

The Creole woman: “Vollard, how do you know?”

Vollard: “Well, you never see any traces.”

The Creole woman: “What traces? What do you mean? Explain yourself.”

Forain, joining in: “But why do you expect there to be any traces of women at his place. He’s a tapette [Kessler’s note: a passive pederast].”

The Creole woman: “Before destroying a reputation, it seems to me you should at least have the beginnings of a proof. How do you know what you are saying?”

Forain: “I don’t know anything, but it shows: his little goatee, his stacked heels—a man doesn’t make himself beautiful like that in order to please women. And then, he doesn’t like women. And when you don’t like women, you like men. That’s certain.”

Degas: “It’s like that Englishman who came to die in a hotel in the rue des Beaux Arts—what was his name?”

Forain: “You mean Oscar Wilde, old Oscar. But with him it was different. He was your old-fashioned pederast [c’était le beau pédé]. He didn’t want to please men. He was active, whereas Chaplin…”24

The Creole woman: “Well, I’m sure what you say is not true. It’s quite the contrary.”

Forain, loud and triumphant: “Let’s see, how can you know that? There would be only one proof…(looking at her sharply) Then you’re his mistress?”

Sert intervened and turned the conversation to the Besnard family.25 He asked Degas if he had already heard what a trick Vollard had played on Besnard in connection with the Cézanne monument. Vollard told of his trap and quoted Besnard’s mot about Cézanne: “He’s a beautiful, bitter fruit. [C’est un beau fruit saumâtre.]”

The Creole woman asked Degas if he had seen Besnard’s catalogue with the introduction by his wife. Degas: “One wonders how Besnard could have put up with this woman, how he still exists, how he isn’t even lower than he already is. A woman who writes a preface for her husband’s catalogue—I ask you if that’s not shameful.”

Forain: “And after he has screwed five children out of her guts [il lui a foutu cinq enfants dans les boyaux].”

The Creole woman: “They should put a woman like that in a cage at the zoo.”

Degas: “My mot sums him up—’He flies with our wings.”‘26

Forain: “But there’s Sert, who’s a ‘survivor’ from the Besnard family. He nearly became the son-in-law, but he’s afraid of the pox.”

Sert protests: “No, no, it’s not true. And anyway, the young girl is charming.”

Forain: “Yes, I know, the young girl is very pretty. I’m not accusing her of having caught the pox. She has congenital pox. It’s known. They all have the pox, the Neapolitan pox, the young girl like the rest of them.”

They discussed whether Blanche27 was a pederast; then the old eccentric Cabaner “who was a platonic pederast” as Forain explained. He told how Cabaner, the musician and intimate friend of Cézanne, had bought a picture from Cézanne, a landscape with naked men (now belonging to Caillebotte) and showed it to X [Kessler: I’ve forgotten the name] in order to convert him to Cézanne. “Yes,” said X, “it’s beautiful like the overture of L’Africaine.”28 “You should have seen Cabaner’s eyes.”29

Degas to Sert: “We used to possess, in Cabaner, a Zurbarán, the living replica of the portrait of Zurbarán.”

Forain: “During the Siege, we sometimes used to go, Cabaner and I, to dine in a little restaurant near Montmartre. One day when you could hear in the distance, as usual, the monotonous noise of the guns, Cabaner looks at me with his eyes fixed and says ‘Still the Prussians?’ I say to him, ‘Of course, who the devil do you want it to be?’ And he replies: ‘I thought, perhaps, the other people.”‘30

We had now reached the sweet course, an orange marmalade prepared according to a Negro recipe. Degas ate it with a kind of voracious enthusiasm: “It’s deliciously bitter, deliciously bitter.” He had the cook called in, to attest to his approbation, and added that she should cut the skin of the fruit slightly smaller, that would be even better. “But it’s deliciously bitter, deliciously bitter,” he kept repeating.31

Then it became too hot in the cellar and we went up into the shop. I spoke with Degas about his friendship with my aunt, Lady Colthurst. That was the only moment I saw something good in his expression.

Then Sert came and tried to interest him in a plan for a picture gallery in Barcelona. Degas became quite furious, fulminated against the popularization of art and the limitless increase in exhibitions, pictures, and artists. “Truly, with all that, the profession of the artist becomes disgusting. Today they want everyone to have taste in the way one has clothes—a vest, pants, ankle-boots. It’s shameful! We’re at the stage when they’ve given orders to the Paris garrison to take a detachment of soldiers, each week, to visit the Louvre, conducted by a non-commissioned officer! I just ask you what business soldiers have in the Louvre, and conducted by a non-commissioned officer? Isn’t that shameful, shameful?”

The Louvre itself he thought not so good as before “since they began to shift the pictures. Does one shift a picture? You don’t move the altars around in a church. The pictures in a museum are like altars. The light in which you see them, all that is part of it. Put the Gioconda in the middle of the panel and it ceases to be the Gioconda. But go and try telling that to the curators, who are failed journalists, barbarians, brutes.”

At this moment he looked down and saw how the beautiful Levell, who was sitting on the table next to him, wiggled her foot. With a sudden darkening expression Degas ordered her: “Stop that, madame. Stop that, madame!” and she, thinking it a joke, laughed and wiggled her foot again. “No, stop that. It’s impossible for me to see that. It makes me feel sick. They say that X had a wife who did that for thirty years and he could never correct it! And that made him feel sick, like me, for thirty years!”

Then he continued his invective against the popularization of art and the Intelligentsia in general—“The Intelligentsia with a capital I. The Intelligentsia corrupts the people.”32 To the young Russian woman: “You too, you are going to corrupt your people now, by education, mademoiselle. It’s Jews and Protestants who do that, who destroy whole races with education. Obligatory instruction—it’s an infamy. There!”

Forain, who sat among the skirts of the three women as if in a basket, from his corner: “Monsieur Degas, I am of your opinion. I am an obscurantist.”

Degas: “You should do something against instruction, Forain.”

Next they spoke about Edwards,33 the owner of Matin, who is Turkish, and about his various marriages. Someone asked Forain, if a Turk married a Catholic woman, if it was like a marriage between Catholics and Protestants. Forain said no. “Clearly our Holy Mother Church has less repugnance for a Turk than for a Protestant. Still, however, it happens…” So Forain explained, in his role as expert authority on religious matters.

Staying on Church affairs, Sert told how in certain Galician villages, where the whole male population spends a long time at sea, nearly all the children are the priest’s. Forain, with excitement: “Ah no, ah no, you offend against our Holy Mother Church. You will burn for that. What you say is an infamy. It is not true.”

Sert roared out that he knew what he was talking about, etc.

Forain: “Look, there’s not a word of truth in it. The priests in Spain are all pederasts.”

Then Forain became sentimental and told brothel stories from his youth, in particular how he had had a truly tender relationship with a prostitute from the bordello “le Monthyon,” so that he would go with her, on her day off, to breakfast at her aunt’s: “Because I’m tender, me.” Mme. Level, against whom he leaned with one arm, confirmed this: “It’s true, he says that laughingly but it’s true. There’s a tender side to Forain.”

Then the portrait of the “Mistress of van Gogh” was brought out (naked in stockings on a bearskin).34 Degas noisily turned his chair around and turned his back to the picture. Forain, who had one hand on Mlle. Georges’s knee: “I find what’s well done are the hairs”—the pubic hairs, which van Gogh had painted in very bold detail.

Degas, who now looked at the painting with one eye, told how this morning he had seen a market woman lift up a bunch of carrots and by chance she had held them against her hair. The color of her hair was almost exactly the same as that of the carrots. Forain: “You’d have done them with the same crayon, eh? She should be astride a famous squirrel, as they say—that one.” For the rest, he found naked women disgusting. In the Cercle Hoche (?) they recently had women dancing naked, “but I left before the end. I went off to excite myself with clothed women.”

Then they told some lesbian stories and around 11 Degas took out his watch and left.

Thus the new “truly French mentality.” Sert asked me, as we left, how I found Degas as a person. I said: “A fanatical, maniacal fool.”

This is the first of two articles on Degas.

  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. 

  7. 7

    Theodore Reff, Degas: The Artist’s Mind (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1987). 

  8. 8

    Daniel Halévy, My Friend Degas (Wesleyan University Press, 1964), p. 101. 

  9. 9

    Henri Loyrette, Degas (Paris: Fayard, 1991). 

  10. 10

    Loyrette, Degas, p. 441. 

  11. 11

    Ambroise Vollard, Degas: An Intimate Portrait (Dover, 1986; originally published 1924). “Degas, danse, dessin” is translated by David Paul in Jackson Matthews, editor, The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, Vol. 12, (Princeton University Press, 1960). 

  12. 12

    Kessler Diary, April 16, 1890. The first part of this description fits closely to van Gogh’s Olive Orchard (Number 1853 in Jan Hulsker, The Complete Van Gogh, Harrison House/Abrams, 1984). The second clause seems to refer to Seurat, the third to van Gogh again. The Starry Night was one of ten van Goghs included in this Salon, along with eleven Seurats (including Le Chahut and Woman Powdering Her Face). Kessler later owned van Gogh’s Portrait of Doctor Gachet, now in a bank vault in Japan. 

  13. 13

    Ambroise Vollard, Recollections of a Picture Dealer (Dover, 1978). 

  14. 14

    Kessler Diary, June 27, 1907. 

  15. 15

    See Apollinaire on Art: Essays and Reviews 1902-1918 by Guillaume Apollinaire, edited by Leroy C. Breunig, translated by Susan Suleiman (1972, reprinted by Da Capo), p. 17. Also Diary of an Art Dealer by René Gimpel (Farrar, Straus, 1966), p. 372. It is impossible to say for certain what Wagram actually owned. He was a slow payer and often left his purchases in the hands of his dealers. John Rewald attempted but failed to unravel the mystery of the court case, in order to trace the Cézannes in his collection. Anne Distel has provided a detailed account of the Wagram affair in “Renoir’s collectors: the pâtissier, the priest and the prince” in the exhibition catalog Renoir, edited by John House, Anne Distel, and Lawrence Gowing (Abrams, 1985). I am very grateful to Walter Feilchenfeldt for helping with this passage. 

  16. 16

    “Degas and the Dreyfus Affair: A Portrait of the Artist as an Anti-Semite,” in Norman Kleeblatt, editor, The Dreyfus Affair: Art, Truth, and Justice (University of California Press, 1987). 

  17. 17

    Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (Knopf, 1988), p. 430. 

  18. 18

    José Maria Sert (1876-1945), Catalan artist and muralist, who worked around the world, decorating the ballroom, the “Sert Room,” at the Waldorf-Astoria for the astonishing fee of $150,000 (the murals were dismantled in the 1970s, given away to the dealer who was prepared to remove them, and who later sold them for a huge sum). Degas’s comment, on visiting Sert’s Paris studio, after a long examination, was: “How very Spanish—and in such a quiet street!” Forain, asked how such overblown murals as Sert’s could be transported, said: “Don’t worry. They’re collapsible.” 

  19. 19

    “Creole” meant originally a white person born in the colonies. Vollard, born in La Réunion (in the Indian Ocean), was a Creole, as was Degas’s mother, who came from New Orleans. 

  20. 20

    Vollard says in his memoirs that he always served chicken curry, the national dish of La Réunion. 

  21. 21

    Alexandre Bernheim (1839-1915), picture dealer, moved from Brussels to Paris in 1873. His sons, Josse Bernheim-Jeune and Gaston Bernheim de Villers, had turned to dealing in contemporary art around the turn of the century. Their gallery was near Vollard’s in rue Laffitte. 

  22. 22

    That is, they were giving out civilian clothes to the French soldiers after the defeat of the French by Prussia in 1870. 

  23. 23

    Apparently Arthur Chaplin (1869-?), a portrait and flower painter who lived in Paris and was the son of Charles Chaplin, who taught Mary Cassatt. 

  24. 24

    Wilde died in 1900. 

  25. 25

    Paul Albert Besnard (1849-1934), highly successful Salon painter. His wife, Charlotte Dubray, was a sculptor. 

  26. 26

    See Paul Valéry, “Degas Danse Dessin”: “Of another person who, around 1885, won the acceptance and the taste of the Salon public for a much tempered, second- or third-hand modernism (Degas said): ‘He flies with our wings.”‘ (Pléiade edition, Vol. II, p. 1217) 

  27. 27

    Jacques-Emile Blanche, the painter, and his wife were friends of Degas and posed for his camera in 1895, the year of their marriage. According to Léon Daudet, Blanche was impotent and the marriage was accordingly never consummated. Degas had owned a portrait by Blanche, which was exhibited in “Degas as a Collector”; he returned the work to the artist in protest at Blanche’s having exhibited an unauthorized portrait of himself. 

  28. 28

    L’Africaine was Meyerbeer’s last opera, first produced in Paris in 1865, a year after the composer’s death. Presumably the joke is that such music would be anathema to Cabaner. 

  29. 29

    Joachim-Jean-Philippe, known as Ernest, Cabaner (1833-1878) was an impoverished composer of highly advanced music who worked as an accompanist in cafés chantants. Vollard twice makes clear that Cézanne gave his celebrated Bathers Resting to Cabaner, from whom it passed to Caillebotte, who tried to bequeath it to the State. It was among works notoriously rejected from his bequest, and must have passed into Vollard’s hands. Vollard once rejected an offer of $200,000 for it, but was later forced to accept $70,000 from the odious Albert C. Barnes. It is now in the Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania. Presumably it was in the shop at the time this discussion was taking place. 

  30. 30

    In his Cézanne (first published 1914), Vollard attributes this story to François Coppée: “During the siege of Paris, when the shells were dropping like rain, Cabaner inquired innocently of Coppée, ‘Where do all those bullets come from?’ Coppée was stupefied. ‘From the enemy, most likely.’ ‘Is it always the Prussians?’ Coppée, beside himself: ‘Well, who do you think they are?’ Cabaner: ‘I don’t know…perhaps other tribes….”‘ 

  31. 31

    Valéry, a frequent visitor, describes the regular meal at Degas’s apartment as veal and macaroni of “rigorous insipidity” followed by “a certain Dundee orange marmalade that I couldn’t bear, that I ended by tolerating, and that I believe I no longer detest, out of fond memory.” Clearly Vollard had laid on the dessert in Degas’s honor, and the first course in complete defiance of his known taste. 

  32. 32

    Roy McMullen cites Gide’s account of a meeting with Degas, on July 4, 1909, when Degas returns to this theme: “The day we began to write the word ‘Intelligence’ with a capital ‘I,’ we were screwed. There is no such entity as Intelligence. There is just intelligence concerning this or that. One should be intelligent only in relation to what one is doing.” Roy McMullen, Degas: His Life, Times, and Work (Houghton Mifflin, 1984), p. 461. I have translated the word intelligence in Kessler as intelligentsia because it seems to fit the context, but the passage in Gide contains both meanings. 

  33. 33

    Alfred Edwards (1856-1914), immensely wealthy financier. He was born in Constantinople of an English father and a French-born mother of possible Near Eastern origin. At the time of this conversation he was on his fourth wife, Misia née Godebska. Sert was shortly to become Misia’s lover, then her husband. It was Forain who introduced the pair, first in 1905, then again some time later in 1907 when Edwards had become infatuated with the actress Geneviève Lantelme. For the extraordinary story of Misia Sert’s life (1872-1950) see Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, Misia (Knopf, 1980). 

  34. 34

    There are three surviving studies by van Gogh of this subject, thought to be a pierreuse, or streetwalker, but in none does she appear to be lying on a bearskin. Kessler saw the version now in the Barnes Foundation (Number 1214 in the Hulsker catalog).