Degas Invents a New World

Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty

an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, March 26–July 24, 2016
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Jodi Hauptman
Museum of Modern Art, 239 pp., $50.00
Edgar Degas: Frieze of Dancers, oil on canvas, circa 1895
Cleveland Museum of Art
Edgar Degas: Frieze of Dancers, oil on canvas, circa 1895

Edgar Degas was a paradoxical man, disconcerting in both his actions and his appearance. “With his silk hat on his head, his blue spectacles over his eyes—not to forget the umbrella—he is the image of a notary, a bourgeois of the time of Louis-Philippe,” according to Paul Gauguin.1 A notary, really? Not to the eyes of Paul Valéry, who describes him opening the door of his atelier, “shuffling about in slippers, dressed like a pauper, his trousers hanging, never buttoned.”2 The portrait painter Jacques-Émile Blanche saw him as neither a bourgeois nor an artist, but as

a platoon commander on a drill field; if he makes a gesture, that gesture is imperious, as expressive as his hand in drawing; but he quickly retreats to a pose as defensive as that of a woman concealing her nakedness, the habit of a solitary soul who veils or protects his personality.3

Degas himself, toward the end of his life, nearly blind, painted a self-portrait and said that he looked like an old dog, while his friend the sculptor Bartholomé found him to be “more beautiful than ever, like an old Homer with his eyes fixed on eternity.”4

He never had one quality without having its opposite:

Degas could be charming or unpleasant. He possessed—and affected—the worst possible disposition; yet there were days when he was quite unpredictably delightful.5

Such was the opinion of Valéry. A confirmed bachelor with a thirst for tidiness, he dreamed, as he told his friend Henri Rouart, of “having everything, well organized (à la Poussin),”6 but he was perfectly capable, although he spent days at a time alone in his atelier, of painting in the pandemonium of a family home like his brother’s, in Louisiana, “in an impossible light, constantly disturbed, with models full of affection but a little sans-gêne,”7 or at the home of the Morisot family where, in the midst of the comings and goings of a stream of visitors, he quickly completed a ravishing portrait of Berthe Morisot’s sister, Yves. Degas’s work was of such complexity that he had difficulty letting it go while he could still glimpse a vast array of possibilities that he was determined to explore. He was capable of revising a dancer’s leg ten or twenty times and then just one last time but, as Valéry put it, had

political views that were simple, peremptory, and essentially Parisian…. With the advent of the Dreyfus affair, he was quite beside himself. He would bite his nails. He would listen for the slightest hint of what he suspected, would burst out, make a clean break at once: “Adieu monsieur…” and turn his back on the enemy forever.8

He broke off all relations with…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.