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.
The point is not Realism. The point is expressiveness. The Thinker’s pose expresses the effort of thought. The pose that Degas observed in his portrait of Manet as he listened to his wife’s music has a similar dynamism. Manet lies back in the sofa. His right knee has sought contact with his right elbow, while his right hand plays with his moustache, and his right foot (he is wearing spats) catches the edge of the upholstery. His left hand is in his trouser pocket and his left foot has disappeared—intimately enough, but not scandalously so—under his wife’s dress.
Everyone found the portrait uncannily like Manet. Degas could have remembered the pose, in part, by expressing it verbally, running through its constituent elements, as in the previous paragraph. Memory of this kind requires rehearsal, and rehearsal requires some form of annotation, which may well be verbal. This was Whistler’s method. A friend described walking with him past Chelsea Hospital when Whistler suddenly stood still, having seen something he should like to paint. The friend offered his sketch-book, but Whistler refused. He remained silent for a while, then said: “Now see if I have learned it.” Then Whistler recited a full description of the scene, the scene which he had committed to memory and would be able to set down the next day.
The grammar of Lecoq’s method of annotation was based on geometry—one committed shapes, outlines to memory—although he had a separate system for the recollection of color. Degas’s grammar came from a study of other artists, and he used to claim that Ingres had advised him never to study from nature. In his école imaginaire, he would have forced the best students to exhaust themselves, and perhaps humiliate themselves a little as well, by climbing six floors to the beginners’ level, where they would make their mental annotations and then descend six floors (going past all the intermediate classes) before returning to their drawing boards.
But throughout the last years of his working life he himself remained at the beginners’ level, in a studio under the roof, and this is where his models sat for him.
He lived on three floors of a house in the rue Victor-Massé. On the second floor he kept most of his collection, in a vast bare room which few ever saw—a room crammed full of paintings on easels, the “museum” of his early work and that of his predecessors and friends. Also on this floor, Degas slept and had his dressing room. An honored guest might well be allowed into the bedroom, to be left alone for a few minutes to contemplate one of the loveliest of the portraits (now in the Musée d’Orsay), Degas’s father listening to the guitarist Lorenzo Pagans.
The third floor, where the house-keeper Zoé slept, was the apartment proper, furnished in bourgeois style with expensive rugs, the family furniture, a silk-covered chaise longue, paintings by Manet and Mary Cassatt. This was the floor on which one was entertained, where Valéry consumed all that Dundee marmalade and that plain macaroni. As long as Degas maintained a social life—and Richard Kendall is at pains to point out that he did so for longer, and to a greater extent, than is sometimes imagined—it was here that he did so. Respectability was the theme.
Whereas on the fourth floor, the studio, Degas would only allow Zoé to clean a route from the door to the dais where the models worked. They would beg her at least to dust the bench where they were to put their clothes, but she was under strict orders: cleaning only shifted the dust around, and Degas would have none of it. Renoir had once rented this studio. For Degas’s purposes it was essential that not too much light should be allowed in. The north-facing windows were draped with a linen curtain, and the clutter of furniture further diffused the light.
Strong light troubled Degas, and he was obliged to wear tinted glasses in the street. There is a temptation, then, to suppose that the very strong colors of the pastels are a compensation for the extremely poor lighting in which the photophobic Degas worked. I don’t believe this had more than a marginal influence. After all, Degas had consciously chosen pastel itself in preference over oil, and must have done so for the sake of certain colorific effects, most notably the fact that, despite areas of smudging and working over, a large proportion of color in one of his pastels is as it would have come from the supplier. That is the challenge of the medium. If he hadn’t welcomed it, he was not obliged to restrict himself. But we saw a glimpse of what attracted Degas in the essay in the previous issue, where he describes the woman lifting a bunch of carrots, and the carrots are the same color as her hair. Carrot was one of the colors Degas found valuable.
The walls of the studio were painted some kind of chestnut brown, and the place was full of props with which to mock up the scenes he worked on so often: the tubs, the towels, the bathrobes (in disgusting condition, according to Valéry), the bench for the ballet dancers, and so forth. One wonders again and again why on earth Degas actually needed such prosaic and familiar objects for the kind of work he was doing in the later years, in which the execution takes off from the theme, in which no great value is set on loyalty to specifics. Degas of all people knew what a tub looked like, by this stage in his career. And it was he who preached that the model was dispensable.
One could easily imagine, though, that Degas worked with models for the sake of the companionship—they went from painter to painter, and brought gossip with them, if the artist was in a talking mood. Or perhaps the arrival of the model, along with the routine of the lighting of the stove, the setting up of the backdrop, and so forth, served as a stimulus to work, in the way that, Degas said, his sculptures did: they were not intended as finished objects in themselves, they were ways of getting started.
Of course, every artist is entitled to an odd way of working. If it works, it works. Vollard, walking along the street, noticed a horse being hoisted into an artist’s studio. Degas’s horse paintings were devised in the studio, using wax models made by the artist. It seems, to my way of thinking, an almost scandalous procedure. But then a great deal about these sculptures is tinged by scandal.
We are used to seeing Degas sculptures around the museums of the world, and used, perhaps, to the idea that these bronzes were only cast after the artist’s death, and that they therefore have not benefited from the kind of attentions that a sculptor would normally bestow on a work of art, after it comes from the foundry. The finish of the various figures (there are seventy-four in all) varies sharply, from an almost black patina to the rich chestnut color of the Dancer looking at the sole of her right foot (cat. 82, Chicago, Ursula and R. Stanley Johnson Collection), which so vividly conjures up the cracked wax original. It is said that the various different finishes were designed to imitate the condition of the wax originals. For a long time it was thought these originals had been destroyed during the casting process, that their cire had been perdue. Not so. In 1955 the majority turned up and were exhibited in the Knoedler Galleries in New York. Paul Mellon bought them, presented some to the Louvre, some to the National Gallery in Washington and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. The remainder are promised to Washington.
It was still thought that the edition of twenty-two of each of the figures was taken directly from the wax originals. Again this was not true, and in 1976 a complete set “turned up” again, which proved to be the bronze modèles from which all the other bronzes had been cast. These were exhibited at the Lefevre Gallery in London. John Rewald wrote the introduction to the catalog, in which he says that he had seen this set in Hébrard, the founder’s, cellar years before, but had not realized its significance. “It is regrettable,” he wrote, “that, through sheer negligence, no mention was ever made of this set,” which he describes as “master casts.”
You would have had to be quite attentive to the wording to realize its implication—indeed, I have the original publicity handout from the Lefevre show, which underplays the modèle set’s significance. But if the modèle are master casts, it follows that all the other Degas bronzes are after-casts, or surmoulages. Quite why Rewald doesn’t state that clearly, I do not know, but last year a (possibly) definitive account of the state of affairs was published in the August issue of Apollo. The master casts, which were bought by Norton Simon and are now in Pasadena, are one single set which was kept by the Hébrard firm for itself. They differ from all other Degas bronzes in having greater surface detail and in being 1.5 to 3 percent larger than the second-generation casts. It also turns out that there are substantially fewer of these genuine second-generation casts around the world than was previously thought. Sara Campbell of the Norton Simon. Museum tracked down references to 1,300 of them, as opposed to the theoretical 1,600-plus there would have been if the edition had been complete. Finally, the casting of these pieces took place between 1919 and 1932, and not during the three-year span originally thought. As a result of Campbell’s researches there is now an atlas of Degas sculptures. But the upshot in sum is: if you want to see the real things, be nice to the Mellons; if you want to see the bronzes cast from the real things, go to Pasadena.
At every stage of the production and reproduction of the sculptures, there are questions to be raised about the nature of a work of art. Degas, who made them, said they weren’t works of art, and that they would anyway not outlive him because they would just crumble away. Renoir said they were works of art of the highest order. Mrs. Havemeyer, who bought a complete set of the second-generation casts, bequeathed them in 1929 to the Metropolitan Museum, whose embarrassment was evident from an article in the museum’s Bulletin of 1946, which called Degas’s “clay studies” the “principal amusement” of his old age, which “cannot be considered as serious works in sculpture in the academic sense of the word.” And: “It has been remarked by certain critics that the duplication of these unfinished sketches in twenty sets of bronzes…is rather too plainly a franc-stretching gesture on the part of the [artist’s] heirs.”6 (Was it during this period of neglect by the museum that one of Mrs. Havemeyer’s set went missing?)
In several cases, Degas’s sculptures may be taken to be quite other than an amusement in old age. Obviously the Little dancer aged fourteen, which the artist exhibited, counts as a finished work of art, and was greeted with much admiration in 1881. At least three other figures were cast in plaster, in preparation for casting in bronze.7 Then there is the Head supported by a hand, which Theodore Reff, in his essay. “The Morbid Content of Degas’ Sculpture,” convincingly re-identifies as a memorial portrait of Perie Bartholomé the wife of Degas’s sculptor friend. And there is the lost relief to which Renoir referred, which he had found as handsome as an antiquity. A small wax relief sketch survives (it is in Washington), from which it is hard to tell what has recently been discovered, that Picking Apples was originally planned as a memorial to Degas’s niece, Marie Fevre. If it reminded Renoir of an antiquity, that is probably because it looked like a sarcophagus relief. Jacques-Emile Blanche, who saw it in December 1881, described “a new sculpture he has made: a little girl half reclining in a coffin, eating fruit; beside her, a bench where the child’s family can come to weep (for it is a tomb).”8
Enough is known about the seriousness of Degas’s sculptural endeavors to cast doubt on the artist’s remark in an interview in 1897 that “the only reason that I made wax figures of animals and humans was for my own satisfaction, not to take time off from painting and drawing but in order to give my paintings and drawings greater expression, greater ardor and more life. They are exercises to get me going; documentary, preparatory motions, nothing more. None of this is intended for sale….”
One section of the Chicago exhibition is devoted to a comparison between the sculpted figures and the same poses as they appear in drawings and pastels. The correspondences have been very well chosen, and yet Richard Kendall is careful to indicate that we do not know when the sculptures were made, and therefore what the precise working process was. It seems plain to me that by the period covered in this exhibition, Degas had ceased toying with what was once an ambition—to produce work as a sculptor. The thought of casting anything in bronze inhibited him—it was too grand, too permanent. But he was an inveterate modeler—never, it seems, a carver—and he found satisfaction in linking his modeling with his other work.
Reff, who is one of those who compares Degas to Leonardo, points to a contradiction in his personality between technical innovator and amateur scientist on the one hand and disenchanted dreamer and reactionary on the other. He allowed his works to be ruined by his indifference, even by something as pennypinching and obtuse as a stinginess with modeling clay—plastelene or plasticine. Radiographs have confirmed that he would eke out this material with pieces of cork, which would sometimes come to the surface. One of his models recorded the frustration this would cause him; “I must be an idiot to have put corks in this figure! Imbecile that I am, with my mania for wanting to make economies of two coppers! There is my [sic] back entirely destroyed! Oh, why did I thrust myself into sculpture at my age?”9
Degas first exhibited in Chicago in 1893, with two paintings in the World’s Columbian Exposition. But Mrs. Potter Palmer, who collected French paintings for the picture gallery of her house on Lake Shore Drive, owned only six works by Degas (as opposed to ninety-odd Monets), so Chicago got off to a slower start than New York and Philadelphia, where the Havemeyers and Cassatts lived. Nevertheless, Chicago collectors did like Degas, although their taste ran to nothing that was less than respectable. Over the years, through bequests and acquisitions, the Art Institute’s collection grew until in the 1980s it could claim to be the largest and most representative collection of Degas after the Louvre and the Met.10
When the National Gallery in London got together with the Art Institute to organize a show devoted to the late work, they were faced with the problem that many collections are unwilling to lend pastels, on account of their fragility. France, for instance, has an almost complete ban on lending pastels (but not, curiously enough, on borrowing them), and there are consequently no French loans in the current show. But Chicago has, in Harriet Stratis, an expert on pastel conservation, and the two institutions were able to devise a method for transporting the works (a system of crates within crates) which cut out vibration. Quite apart from its artistic significance, the putting together of the exhibition is something of a technical triumph, and a triumph of persuasion. Very few requests for loans were turned down, and the organizers anyway took care not to request any particularly fragile work.
But pastel is not necessarily as fragile as some fear, and many of Degas’s works in the medium are apparently quite robust objects. It could so easily have happened, as with the sculpture, that the artist himself had made the works impermanent, but fortunately enough the Leonardo side, the crazy scientist in Degas, got the method right on this occasion. Whatever recipe or recipes he used for fixative (essentially, a solution of shellac in white spirit) worked, and held, and did not discolor—although it might slightly have muted the pigment. Degas possessed what Walter Sickert described as a “ball syringe,” perhaps some variant on a perfume spray or gardener’s Flit-gun, with which he fixed and refixed the work as he went along. So each discrete layer of pigment—and these visible layers are essential to the technique—is sandwiched between layers of shellac or some other transparent matte substance, culminating in a rough surface appearance which Sickert compares to that of a cork bathmat.
A ware that some suppliers’ pigments had proved impermanent, Degas, according to Vollard, used to soak the sticks of pastel in water and leave them in the sun. He went in for newfangled colors manufactured by Henri Roché. As Kendall says, “The scintillating ultramarines, violets, yellow-greens and oranges of Dancers (cat. 23) might be an advertisement for Roche’s latest products or the achievements of modern chemistry, while the tangerine highlights of Two dancers on a bench (cat. 30) seem like a celebration of a new, electrically intense pigment.” Although pastel itself has strong eighteenth-century associations as a technique, in Degas’s version it has a swanky modernity. J.-K. Huysmans referred to Degas’s “neologisms of colour.”
One unexpected eighteenth-century practice revived by Degas is the use of more than one piece of paper for a picture. Degas sets out with one plan, then seems to change his mind completely about the dimensions of the composition. He starts work on tracing paper, pinned to a board. Then he changes his mind and adds another strip of tracing paper to enlarge the composition. Having reached some stage of certainty, he unpins the pieces of paper, rolls them up, puts on his coat and hat and the blue-tinted glasses he has to wear in the street, and goes off to one of the framing merchants—often a certain Père Lézin—who can be trusted to glue the tracing paper to cardboard, bringing the edges together in a neat butt joint with no overlap.
Perhaps this had the psychological advantage of “getting him out of the house,” but it seems an odd, complex, and one would have thought intolerably self-revealing procedure, since it advertises every change of mind. On the other hand, it perhaps liberated the artist from uncertainty. One can imagine him saying to himself, as he played around with different strips of paper, “If this were a canvas I wouldn’t be able to do this.” And there are two canvases in the show—the Nude woman drying herself from Brooklyn (cat.9) and the National Gallery’s Combing the hair (cat.42)—that are left unfinished, through some kind of crippling indecision. Of course the subsequent history of painting has accustomed us to the “look” of both works, and we find them immensely striking. (Combing the hair used to belong to Matisse.) But Degas no doubt thought of them as failures, and they remain unsigned.
Another unsigned work, the highly sculptural pastel called The Bathers (cat.88), is perhaps the grandest item in Chicago’s Degas collection (see illustration on page 14), and one could observe it making a great impact in London. It began life as a rectangular composition, but was made almost square by the addition of strips of paper above and below. Degas started with one piece of tracing paper, on which he traced two nude women from a previous pastel. Then he turned the tracing paper over to reverse the image and added a third figure, no doubt from memory, apparently based on an early copy he had made of a warrior from the foreground of Michelangelo’s lost Battle of Cascina. Oddly enough, although Degas intends a woman, and has given the slight indication of a breast, this figure retains something of its maleness, and makes one wonder at first quite what is going on.
In the background, at the center of the composition, is a semi-submerged version of the background figure in Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (which was originally known as Le Bain)—a woman bathing in the river. The woman on the left sits on the river bank, while the strange monumental central figure appears to be rolling around on a rug. The Michelangelo figure is putting on her stockings—just as in the Battle of Cascina he was girding himself up to face the enemy. But at this stage of the concoction of the composition, Degas began to have doubts—maybe a bit more sky, maybe more foreground. And soon it was time to reach for the hat and the tinted spectacles, and go to a shop a couple of streets away in the rue Fontaine to get the whole composition mounted on board. But afterward Degas made only the slightest attempt to unify the three elements of the picture, the three pieces of paper.
That he was addicted to difficulty is an old observation. When Yeats writes—
The fascination of what’s difficult
Has dried the sap out of my veins….
—we feel that, if he is able to write the lines, they cannot quite be true. But Degas seems to have known what was coming, and the price he was going to pay. He renounced portraiture, equestrian scenes, brothel and cabaret scenes, and narrowed the obsession down to the nude and the dance, or even nude dancers. He had his props—the tub, the stale tutus, the ballet shoes, the horrible old towels—and his portfolios crammed with drawings. He had his crumbling statuary and, on days when there was no model, he would draw one of his dancers, then turn the statuette by a few degrees and draw it again, so that he had two dancers; turn it again, and then there was a plausible threesome.
He loved macaroni. Nobody explained to him that you don’t eat Dundee marmalade neat. The Jews and the Protestants were destroying France. He looked at his watch. There was a good watchmaker once in the rue du Helder, a good French watchmaker—they’d know what time it was. The dust came off the pastel. It spread up his fingers, everywhere. He didn’t button up his trousers properly. He didn’t “close the carriage doors.” He could hardly see.
Art was the product of “a series of operations.” If he dropped off The Bathers at Adam Dupré’s shop, he could guarantee a good butt joint. Then he could walk to the Gare du Nord and take the omnibus down to the opera. At Guérin’s he could find out what time it was. It was a very good thing, a very good thing, that he had managed to find such a perfect ball syringe for his purposes. Chialiva had told him the secret of a good fixative.
He sprayed the pastel again. The time was the twentieth century. Zoé had to leave. He knew he was going to be alone with his art. But he had always foreseen this. He had known what was coming. His friends deserted him. They were Jews and Protestants. He hadn’t drawn men for years. There was only one subject, but art was the product of a series of operations: one washed in the river, one sat on the bank and dried, one rolled around on the rug (the little hussy!), and one put on her stockings and prepared to face the enemy.
In 1912 the house in the rue Victor-Massé was pulled down, and Degas’s life came to an end in a cloud of rubble and dust. Five years later he died.
This is the second of two articles.
October 17, 1996
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. ↩
Ambroise Vollard, Degas: an Intimate Portrait (Dover, 1986), p. 59. ↩
Richard Kendall, editor, Degas by Himself (New York Graphic Society/ Little, Brown, 1987), p. 248. ↩
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). ↩
Ruth Butler, Rodin: The Shape of Genius (Yale University Press, 1993), p. 392. ↩
John Rewald, Degas’s Complete Sculpture (San Francisco: Alan Wofsy, 1990), p.30. ↩
One of these is owned by the Mellons. Two other plasters have very recently come to light and are advertised in the September issue of Apollo by the Lefevre Gallery as “The Lost Plasters of Edgar Degas.” However, in the catalog that accompanies these sculptures, Richard Kendall makes clear that while he believes that one of these, a Dancer looking at the sole of her right foot, is the cast made for Degas and displayed in the salon of his apartment, the other, a Spanish Dancer, seems to be an aftercast of some still missing cast. The two pieces were exhibited in the Paris Biennale until September 29, and afterward are viewable, by appointment, at the Lefevre Gallery in London. ↩
Apollo, August 1995, pp. 64–71. ↩
In Shelley Sturman and Daphne Barbour, “The materials of the sculptor: Degas’ techniques,” Apollo, August 1995, p. 54. ↩
For a full account of the formation of the Chicago collection see Richard R. Brettell and Suzanne Folds McCullagh, Degas in the Art Institute of Chicago (Abrams, 1984). ↩