Why do you say that Degas has trouble getting a hard-on? Degas lives like a little notary and doesn’t like women, knowing that if he liked them and fucked them a lot he would become cerebrally ill and hopeless at painting. Degas’s painting is virile and impersonal precisely because he has resigned himself to being personally no more than a little notary, with a horror of riotous living.

Vincent van Gogh’s crude speculations, written to Émile Bernard from Arles in August 1888, would have appalled the intensely private fifty-four-year-old Edgar Degas, who had recently started selling his work through Vincent’s brother, Theo, a director at Boussod, Valadon & Cie. (Degas’s own collection, formed during the 1890s, would include two glorious still lifes and an early drawing by Vincent.) The prurient reader will look in vain among the 1,240 letters transcribed, dated, annotated, and translated in Theodore Reff’s monumental edition of Degas’s correspondence for revelations about his sexuality and erotic life, although there is a businesslike letter to the Italian painter Giovanni Boldini—with whom he was about to travel to Spain—written from Pau, in southwestern France, on September 3, 1889, in which he instructs Boldini to buy condoms for them both from Milan, a Parisian establishment that Degas clearly knew well: “Buy an ample number. There might be seductions in Andalusia, first of all for you, and even for me.”1

Daniel Halévy, the younger son of Degas’s good friends the librettist and member of the Académie française Ludovic Halévy and Louise Breguet, heiress to a clockmaking fortune, noted in his memoir, Degas parle, that his family, and their friends and associates, were part of the “liberal bourgeoisie, who joined material comfort and a simple way of life to the joys of culture and a love of music.” Degas, who dined weekly with the Halévys for almost fifteen years, shared these values, although in his case one hesitates to use the term “liberal,” since his increasing conservatism and unbridled anti-Semitism cast a shadow over his final decades. Not given to introspection or confession; rarely expounding upon the theory of his art or his ambitions as a modernist (a term he would have despised, given his veneration of the old masters); a perfectionist and to some degree a compulsive (he attended thirty-seven performances of the 1884 opera Sigurd, by the now-forgotten Ernest Reyer)—Degas reveals himself intermittently in his voluminous correspondence, in instances of unexpected self-awareness and candor.

But as Reff also points out, there are lacunae and surprising absences: only a handful of letters from the 1850s and 1860s, few surviving letters to Degas’s family or fellow Impressionists, and a preponderance of transactional items, in the form of letter and telegram cards requesting money or giving financial instructions to his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel. Had Degas been willing to install a telephone, introduced in France in 1878, one sixth of the published correspondence might not have existed. When his friend the illustrator and painter Jean-Louis Forain arranged for him to witness a phone call, he remained unimpressed: “So that’s the telephone!… They ring, and you run.”

Degas was an advocate for a reformed state-sponsored annual Salon to which artists might contribute their work without the oversight of an official jury, a founding member of the Impressionist movement, and a major force behind six of the eight Impressionist exhibitions held between 1874 and 1886. So it comes as something of a shock that he was so dismissive of plein air painting and of working outdoors in general, central tenets of the New Painting in the 1870s. The dealer Ambroise Vollard recalled him saying, “If I were the government I would have a special brigade of gendarmes to keep an eye on artists who paint landscapes from nature. Oh, I don’t mean to kill anyone: just a little dose of bird-shot now and then as a warning.” Staying with the Halévys at their country house in Étretat in July 1882, he quipped to the young painter Jacques-Émile Blanche, “The weather is beautiful, but more Monet than my eyes can stand.”

In the early 1870s, when he made a rare effort to articulate his aesthetic principles, Degas championed naturalism and realism, terms he used interchangeably. The word “Impressionist” never passed his lips; he preferred the less provocative epithet “indépendant,” which he ensured was used in the titles of the fourth and seventh Impressionist exhibitions in 1879 and 1882. To his great friend Henri Rouart, the industrialist and early collector of the Impressionists, Degas wrote from New Orleans in December 1872, “I dream of creating something well made, a well-ordered whole (in the style of Poussin) and like Corot in old age.” In February 1873, while still in America, Degas advised the painter James Tissot:

Remember the art of the Lenain brothers and the French Middle Ages. Our race will produce something simple and bold. The naturalist movement will draw like the great schools, and then will its strength be recognized.

Back in Paris in the spring of 1874, he urged Tissot—without success—to participate in the first Impressionist exhibition, which opened on April 15: “The realist movement no longer needs to struggle against the others. It is, it exists, it needs to be seen on its own terms. There has to be a realist Salon.” Advocating for a prescribed repertory of subjects to which he would return throughout a fifty-year career—ballet dancers rehearsing and performing, musicians in the opera pit, jockeys preparing for a race, laundresses, shop assistants, women taking their baths—Degas had confided in November 1872 to the Danish artist Lorenz Frølich, “Art does not expand, it condenses…. Only a very long stay would give you the habits of a race, that is to say, its charm.” This is consistent with an observation he made over a decade later to his closest companion of the time, the sculptor Paul-Albert Bartholomé: “You have to redo the same subject ten times, a hundred times. Nothing in art should appear accidental, not even movement.”


Degas’s resistance to plein air painting was also due to chronic problems with his sight, his fear of blindness, and recurring anxiety about his vision. (He suffered from photophobia and eventually saw only out of his left eye.)2 Working outdoors by the Seine in the summer of 1871, Degas experienced severe eyestrain. He told Tissot that discomfort in his eyes “first happened on the river bank in Chatou under the blazing sun, while making a watercolor; it cost me three weeks of being unable to read, work, or go outside much, and made me tremble with fear that I would remain this way.” While visiting his brother René’s family in New Orleans in the winter of 1872–1873, he wrote to Tissot, “There are so many beautiful things I could have made and rapidly, were the bright sunlight not so unbearable to me.”

Blindness and sight are powerful themes in Degas’s letters, and his preoccupation with conserving his vision for his art, against the demands of reading and writing, is a constant refrain. (In the early 1890s he also asserted, to the contrary, that “differences in vision are of no importance. One sees as one wishes to see and it is this falseness that constitutes art.”) Cold weather, the damp, and fog were bad for his eyes; by the early 1880s he complained that he needed a magnifying glass to read. He insisted that his correspondents write more legibly and in January 1892 ordered his sister Thérèse “to adopt a new manner of writing, forming round letters with one of those pens cut with a square tip, using very black ink, not putting tails on your letters, and spacing the words far apart.” His housekeeper, Zoé Closier, a former schoolteacher, read aloud to him everything that did not need to be kept in confidence, and beginning in 1892, Degas’s lunches were accompanied by Zoé reading the latest vitriol from Édouard Drumont’s La Libre Parole, a virulent anti-Semitic daily.

Degas’s letters of the 1870s reveal him to be a determined adversary of the official art establishment, notably its control of the annual Salon with its prizes, awards, and acquisitions. He had large ambitions for his art and unrealistic expectations of financial success. He was attentive to the careers of more fashionable realists such as Tissot and Alfred Stevens, noting with some envy that the former earned the equivalent of 95,000 francs in 1872. Extending his stay in New Orleans so that he could complete A Cotton Office in New Orleans—one of his early masterpieces—he boasted to Tissot in February 1873 that the English dealers Thomas Agnew and Sons, with whom he had no association whatever, would be able to find wealthy cotton-mill owners in Manchester for such pictures. Degas’s expectation that they might command Tissot’s prices of £900—the equivalent of 22,500 francs—is so unrealistic as to appear slightly unhinged.3 Five years later, thanks to his friendship with prominent figures in the community, A Cotton Office in New Orleans was acquired by the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Pau for 2,000 francs: a considerable reduction from Degas’s asking price of 5,000 francs. Thanking the curator in March 1878, Degas wrote, “I must confess that this is the first time that a Museum honors me in this way, and that such official recognition both surprises and flatters me to a considerable degree.”

Degas referred to the paintings and pastels he made for the market—distinctly signed, sometimes dated—as his “articles,” a term he first used in May 1877. For one reminded since youth of the “need to earn one’s bread and butter in this world,” he was always attentive to commercial networks and possibilities, but he approached his more ambitious projects—scenes of what Édouard Manet had termed Parisian “high life”—somewhat differently. With such paintings, his treatment of collectors and patrons could be willful, at times self-destructive. A case in point was Jean-Baptiste Faure, the celebrated baritone and early enthusiast of Manet and the Impressionists, who in 1874 commissioned five new works from Degas and entered into a complicated arrangement with Durand-Ruel, whereby a certain number of Degas’s paintings were returned to the artist so that he could rework them. Of the new commissions, only two were delivered to Faure in 1875–1876. In July 1886 Degas was still requesting time to finish “your large horse races” (The Race Track, Amateur Jockeys Near a Carriage, 1887), pleading, “Just give me a few days more and you’ll receive satisfaction.” Finally losing patience, in May 1887 Faure sued Degas in civil court, which found in Faure’s favor and held the artist responsible for legal costs. The three remaining canvases were completed well before the end of the year.4


Henri Rouart was rumored to have kept Degas’s Dancers Practicing at the Barre (1877) secured to the wall to prevent him from taking it back to his atelier to retouch it. The young Leo Stein asked the collector if the story was true: “He said the padlock was a fiction but that he kept his eye on Degas when Degas left the house after his customary dinner on Thursday, even though the picture was a little large to be hidden under the painter’s cape.” In December 1897 Joseph Durand-Ruel—more trusting than his father, perhaps—allowed Degas to take back the portrait of Viscount Ludovic-Napoléon Lepic and his daughters, the celebrated Place de la Concorde (1875), which the dealer had acquired at an auction of Lepic’s collection in March 1897, in order to add some finishing touches. Degas held on to the painting until October 1904—causing a sale to the Nationalgalerie in Berlin to fall through—and it was finally acquired in December 1911 by the Berlin insurance magnate Otto Gerstenberg. Long believed to have been destroyed by fire during World War II, it made a spectacular reappearance in 1995 as one of many Impressionist masterpieces looted by the Soviet army from German collections in 1945 and is today still in the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.

In the 1890s, the most fully documented decade in Reff’s Letters, Degas appears as a reluctant but honorable paterfamilias, responsible for the well-being of a far-flung and somewhat disappointing family (his siblings and their children lived in Buenos Aires, Naples, and Geneva). Between 1874 and 1882 he had served as the chief creditor for his impulsive brother Achille, who had defaulted on a loan of 66,000 francs to shore up the failing family bank.5 From 1892 on, Degas gave his sister Thérèse a monthly allowance, a sum that increased after her husband’s death in December 1894. Beginning in 1893, Degas was also paying a quarterly stipend to one of his oldest and dearest friends, the painter Évariste de Valernes, a teacher at the municipal art school in Carpentras. Not inclined to marry—although apparently “haunted” by the desire to do so in October 1890, and flirting in public in 1898–1899 with Renoir’s pupil Jeanne Baudot6—Degas found a surrogate domesticity through the family life of his closest friends, in particular Paul Valpinçon, the Rouart brothers Henri and Alexis, Henri Lerolle, and the Halévys.

He also formed strong attachments to artists of a younger generation (and lesser talent)—such as Pierre-Georges Jeanniot, Forain, and Louis Braquaval—and was an early admirer of Suzanne Valadon and Paul Gauguin. With the sculptor Bartholomé, a pupil of Jean-Léon Gérôme, in the late summer of 1890 he undertook an eccentric three-week trip through Burgundy, traveling in a tilbury carriage harnessed to a white horse, ostensibly to visit the Jeanniots on their large estate at Diénay par Is-sur-Tille.7 (Their journey, “une promenade en voiture sans raison,” as Bartholomé remembered it, is recounted in thirty letters to various correspondents.) From this well-documented expedition Degas would harvest, two years later, the group of twenty-five surpassingly strange, almost abstract, landscapes in pastel and monotype that he exhibited at Durand-Ruel’s gallery in September 1892 (and again in October 1894), the only one-man show in Paris that he permitted during his lifetime. In these “imaginary landscapes”—as Degas described them to his sister Marguerite in Buenos Aires—Bartholomé claimed to be able to identify quite precisely many of the sites they had visited en route to Diénay two years earlier.

In the 1890s Degas, encouraged by his friend Stéphane Mallarmé, embarked upon a series of sonnets, some twenty in number, which Paul Valéry considered “of high and original quality.” In 1895 he experimented with photography, corralling the Halévys and other friends to sit for him, and in August he transported his equipment to the spa town of Mont-Dore in the Dordogne, from which he supervised the printing, retouching, and enlargement of his plates by his supplier in Paris, Guillaume Tasset. On August 15 Degas sent Marguerite and her family a photographic kit with instructions for its use:

I calculate that with one month and a little patience, you’ll be able to send me (instead of letters, if you are hardworking) some good portraits of people and places, or even of rooms. Wrap this correspondence carefully: humidity is fatal.

Degas’s growing prosperity—with Monet, he was the best-selling of the Impressionists in Durand-Ruel’s stable of artists—also allowed him to indulge his voraciousness (and discrimination) as a collector. His chief passions were the paintings and drawings of Ingres and Delacroix, but also the graphic art of Gavarni, Manet, and Mary Cassatt, and the work of Gauguin in all media. (Between 1898 and 1899 alone, Degas spent an estimated 61,000 francs on works for his collection.) At an auction in February 1895 to raise money for Gauguin’s return to Tahiti, Degas bought, among other things, Gauguin’s copy of Manet’s Olympia, which he had never seen. According to Daniel Halévy, “He turned to his neighbors and asked them, ‘Is it beautiful?’”

Around this time Degas seems to have considered creating a museum to house his collection, which would expand to more than 1,100 works. As early as March 1895 he had mentioned this possibility to the painter Berthe Morisot, who wanted to make sure he included a work by her brother-in-law: “If he founds a museum, he must choose a Manet.” In March 1896 Degas entered into discussions with the vice-president of the Municipal Council of Paris, whom he hoped to meet in Mont-Dore the following summer. As Reff notes, Degas may have been inspired by the example of the portraitist Léon Bonnat, whose collection was to be housed in a museum in Bayonne, on which construction had begun in 1896. From 1897, Degas’s collection was shown on the second floor (French style) of his three-story Paris apartment at 37, rue Victor-Massé. The English painter Walter Sickert recalled threading his way with Degas, by candlelight, through a “forest of easels standing so close to each other that we could hardly pass between them, each one groaning under a life-size portrait by Ingres, or holding early Corots.”

Given Degas’s distrust of the state and distaste for public education in general, it is not surprising that nothing came of these discussions. He disliked the Musée Gustave Moreau, which opened in 1903, noting that it was so “truly sinister” that “it might be a family vault.” And he was unmoved by the pleas of the painter, collector, and art historian Étienne Moreau-Nélaton, who had donated his collection of French paintings and drawings—including Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe—to the Louvre in 1906. Moreau-Nélaton visited Degas in his studio in December 1907 to revive negotiations, assuring the painter that he would be able to name his own director should he leave his collection to the state. For lack of space, Moreau-Nélaton’s collection was being presented at the neighboring Musée des Arts Décoratifs, and Degas ended the conversation by insulting the petitioner: “For a start, your paintings are not at all well shown there.”

The most dramatic—and saddest—aspect of Degas in the 1890s relates to his increasingly outspoken anti-Semitism and his reaction to the efforts to rehabilitate Captain Albert Dreyfus, who had been found guilty of espionage in December 1894 and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island.8 As evidence tending to exonerate Dreyfus and implicate the highest echelons of the French military came to light in 1897, Degas’s relations with the Halévy family became more and more fraught. The Halévys’ elder son, Élie, noted in November 1897, “I have a Jewish name, even though I am Protestant.” (Degas also harbored an irrational dislike of Protestants.) The Halévys associated with journalists and intellectuals committed to proving (and publicizing) Dreyfus’s innocence. At their Thursday dinner on November 25, 1897, the day on which Le Figaro published Émile Zola’s first article in support of Dreyfus, Ludovic expressly forbade any discussion of the topic (“Papa was very annoyed, Degas very anti-Semitic”).

Although no one knew it at the time, the last family dinner that Degas attended at the Halévys took place on January 13, 1898, the day on which Zola’s “J’accuse” appeared on the front page of L’Aurore. Their ebullient younger guests, whose company Degas usually relished, offended him with their Dreyfusard opinions. He canceled the following week’s dinner on the day itself, writing to Louise:

You will have to excuse me tonight, and I would rather tell you right away that I am asking you to do so for some time. You could not have thought that I would have the heart to continue being cheerful and entertaining. The time for laughter is over. You kindly introduced me to these young people, but I constrain them and they are unbearable to me. Let me remain in my corner. I’ll be happy there. There are many good moments to remember.

The decision must not have been easy for Degas to take. Unaware of this crisis, on the evening of January 20 nineteen-year-old Julie Manet—another anti-Dreyfusard who would contribute funds to La Libre Parole for the repatriation of Jews to Jerusalem—went to Degas’s apartment to invite him to dinner. “We found him so worked up into such a terrible state against the Jews,” she noted in her diary, “that we left without asking him anything at all.” “To live alone, without any family, it is really too hard,” he had confided to Madame Giuseppe De Nittis in May 1877. In his rupture with the Halévys, Degas administered a self-inflicted wound.

A riveting (and dispiriting) glimpse of Degas in old age—increasingly conservative, cantankerous, and alienated—is provided in the diary of Count Harry Kessler, the German patron and impresario, for whom Vollard organized a dinner in the cellar of his gallery in June 1907 so that Kessler could meet the seventy-two-year-old painter.9 Attended also by the artists Forain, José Maria Sert, and Pierre Bonnard, the dinner was not a success. Degas, who initially appeared to Kessler like “an elegant grandfather…an apostle, untouched by the world,” became agitated when conversation turned to the Bernheim family, who dealt in his work. Referring to the father, Alexandre, who had established the business, Degas exclaimed, “How can one chat with people like that? Let’s see, with a Jewish Belgian who is a naturalized Frenchman! It’s as if one wished to speak with a hyena, a boa. Such people do not belong to the same humanity as us.”

Kessler recorded that Degas’s most deranged invective was reserved for compulsory education:

“It’s the Jews and the Protestants who do that” [Degas said]…Degas became completely angry, thundering against the popularization of art and the unrestrained increase in exhibitions, pictures, and artists. “Truly, with all of this, the profession of artist is becoming disgusting. Today one wants everyone to have taste the same way one has clothes, a vest, pants, boots. It’s shameful! It’s come to where the garrison in Paris has ordered that each week a detachment of soldiers should visit the Louvre under the supervision of an officer! I wonder a bit at what soldiers are supposed to do in the Louvre, and under the supervision of an officer? Is it not shameful, shameful?”

Amused and horrified in equal measure, Kessler left the dinner concluding that the artist was “a deranged and maniacal innocent.”

A kinder, more affectionate Degas does emerge in his letters, but rarely, and notably in those to his friend and fellow artist Valernes, whom he had known since the mid-1850s, and next to whom he is shown in his self-portrait Degas and Évariste de Valernes (1865; see illustration at beginning of article). Writing to Valernes on October 26, 1890, Degas begged forgiveness:

I am going to apologize for something that recurs often in your conversation and even more so in your thoughts: namely, throughout our long artistic relationship, my having been or having appeared to be hard on you. I was singularly so on myself, as you must remember since you reproached me for it and were astonished that I had such little self-confidence. I was, or appeared to be, hard on everyone, due to a habitual brutality born of my self-doubt and bad temper. I felt so poorly made, so poorly equipped, so weak, and yet it seemed to me that my calculations on art were so right.

According to Degas’s first cataloger, Pierre-André Lemoisne, “He who always had difficulty revealing himself in his letters wrote often to Valernes with abandon and affection.”

Mlle Bécat aux Ambassadeurs; painting by Edgar Degas

Private Collection

Edgar Degas: Mlle Bécat aux Ambassadeurs, circa 1875–1876

Printed in large quarto format, in a handsome three-volume boxed set, Reff’s edition of The Letters of Edgar Degas is the fruit of sixty years of sustained engagement with the artist. A professor emeritus in Columbia University’s Department of Art History and Archaeology—where he started teaching in 1957—Reff is also an authority on Manet and Cézanne. He published Degas’s thirty-eight notebooks in 1976, with a revised edition appearing in 1985; coauthored the Supplement to Lemoisne’s four-volume catalogue raisonné in 1984; and since 1960 has contributed innumerable articles and catalog essays on the artist. Reff’s bilingual edition of Degas’s correspondence demonstrates his extraordinary tenacity in tracking down, reviewing, and dating more than 1,200 letters. Like many of their literary contemporaries (and any well-educated bourgeois of the period), the long-lived Impressionists were energetic letter writers. Pissarro’s published correspondence comprises more than 2,000 letters; Monet’s more than 3,000; Renoir’s, currently in preparation, will likely include over 1,700.

Most impressive are Reff’s footnotes to each entry, which distill information from cadastral records, state and municipal archives, and published accounts that bear on the contents of the letter in question. His third volume contains English translations of all the letters; succinct—and wherever possible, illustrated—biographies of the 125 most frequently mentioned correspondents; a map of Degas’s Montmartre and L’Opéra, with ninety-seven addresses, including those of his homes and studios as well as those of his closest associates (we can see that it took Degas less than five minutes to walk from his studio on the rue Victor-Massé to the Halévys on rue de Douai); a chronological listing of all the letters; and indices spanning sixty pages. The three volumes are a tour de force of scholarship, and will become invaluable companions not only for students and admirers of Degas, but also for those interested in the Impressionists generally and in the city of Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Among the Impressionists, Degas has been the best served by the many scholars, art historians, and catalogers who have devoted themselves to his art. Since the magnificent and comprehensive retrospective exhibition seen in 1988–1989 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, and the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris—with a catalog that remains the standard reference on the artist10—there have been exhibitions and publications devoted to every aspect, period, and genre of Degas’s work: his portraiture, nudes, dancers, jockeys, and landscapes, for example, as well as his sculpture, monotypes, and photographs.

With its rigor and precision, Reff’s edition of Degas’s letters brings insight and new information to examples of each of these. A receipt to Faure for 5,000 francs dated March 6, 1874, establishes conclusively that the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s The Dance Class, commissioned in late October or early November 1873, in which Degas flattered his patron by including in the background a poster for Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (one of Faure’s greatest roles), was completed early in 1874. It was the first version of a composition repeated with minor variations on a canvas that is today in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Furthermore, Reff establishes once and for all that it was the Met’s picture that appeared in the first Impressionist exhibition in Nadar’s studio in April 1874, where it was listed as Examen de danse au théâtre, belonging to “M. Faure.”

Similarly, in republishing Degas’s letter of October 23, 1874, to Charles William Deschamps, the manager of the London branch of Durand-Ruel’s gallery, Reff notes Degas’s reassurance from the dealer’s enthusiasm for the recent arrival of a painting that would be exhibited in London the following year. This was most likely Dancer Posing for a Photograph (Dancer in Front of the Window), which until now had reasonably enough been dated to 1875, since it was shown in the spring of that year at Deschamps’s New Bond Street Gallery as Ballet Dancer Practising. Degas’s letter confirms that the painting was completed by October 1874, and Reff speculates that it reached London too late to be included in the catalog of Deschamps’s current show, which opened on November 16. By such means does one arrive at refinements in dating and chronology.

Reff’s edition of the correspondence has been published under the auspices of the Wildenstein Plattner Institute, established in New York and Paris in 2016 to support the production of catalogues raisonnés and the digitization of archival sources, so one hopes that an online edition of it might one day be forthcoming. This would be the ideal way in which to incorporate the rare item that has escaped Reff’s notice or to publish correspondence that might one day reappear, such as Degas’s letters to the actress Ellen André or Cassatt. In the ranks of the former is a receipt in the Morgan Library and Museum dated January 16, 1915. It records the sale by Degas for 4,000 francs of a small painting on Haviland ceramic tile representing a singer at a café concert to Pierre Cloix, an intermediary for the Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg, who had recently opened glamorous new quarters at 21, rue la Boétie, and with whom Degas, unsurprisingly, had no relations.11 Cloix sold it to Rosenberg on the same day for 4,400 francs, earning a modest commission of 10 percent.