Colin B. Bailey, interviewed by Sam Needleman

Colin B. Bailey

Colin B. Bailey

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

Colin B. Bailey, the director of the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, has written about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European art for the Review since 2015. In an essay published in the Review’s Holiday Issue, he reviewed “Manet/Degas,” an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York that will close on January 7. “Almost every major painting by both artists from the 1860s and 1870s has been secured,” Bailey writes—including Manet’s Olympia (1863), which made its maiden voyage across the Atlantic for the occasion. “‘Manet/Degas’ and its excellent catalog demonstrate the affinities and commonalities in the work of the two artists and illuminate their shared ambition to create a new language of modern art, with a repertory of new subjects.”

Bailey has written about Manet and Degas in these pages before, as well as Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Jacques Louis David, and the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. Before taking charge of the Morgan in 2015, he served as director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and, before that, deputy director and chief curator of the Frick Collection in New York, whose temporary installation in Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist landmark on Madison Avenue was the subject of his 2021 essay “Masterpieces Unmediated.”

Sam Needleman: Manet or Degas?

Colin B. Bailey: A Solomonic question and not an easy one to answer, but Degas. Over a sixty-year career—something denied Manet—Degas painted and drew such a range of subjects and in such a range of styles, and was also a sculptor and printmaker of genius (not to mention an enthusiastic photographer in the 1890s). Decade by decade, Degas remained so original, so commanding, and at times quite breathtaking in his audacity. Just enter the frigid and forbidding world of Family Portrait (The Bellelli Family) (1858–1869)—one of his greatest masterpieces, beautifully restored for the exhibition—and you see how unsparing he is in his depiction of his dour Florentine aunt, her philandering husband, and their watchful, well-bred young daughters.

On the centenary of his death in 1983 the Metropolitan Museum hosted the largest Manet retrospective ever held in the United States, with nearly one hundred paintings. Five years later the Met staged an equally grand Degas retrospective, with nearly four hundred works (“and not a smile among them,” Murray Kempton wrote in the Review, “if we discount the grisly leers of the prostitutes.”) “Manet/Degas” takes a different tack. What do viewers gain from examining two great painters together, in one show?

Those were exceptional exhibitions, accompanied by scholarly and beautifully produced catalogs that I consult every time I work on either artist. “Manet/Degas” is ambitious in other ways. It charts the emergence of two of the founding fathers of Impressionism, whose innovations guided successive generations of Modernist painters. We observe them between 1860 and the early 1880s, the most influential decades in the development of the New Painting. It is not a question of comparing and contrasting, or of who is following whom, but of overlapping networks and a shared commitment to be “of one’s time,” as the artist Honoré Daumier put it.

The chronological arrangement of the show takes us through Degas’s and Manet’s early training, when both studied (and copied) masters such as Raphael, Lippi, Titian, and Velázquez, whose work they saw during their travels abroad but primarily in the galleries of the Louvre. Both treated the same canon of modern-day subjects: the racecourse, the brasserie, the milliner’s shop, the brothel. In their use of color, scale, handling, and composition, both approached themes of bourgeois recreation and domesticity behind doors in resolutely disruptive ways. One does not come away with the feeling that either artist is looking over his shoulder to see what his colleague is doing. All the same, as Manet exhibited in as many venues as possible, it was almost impossible for Degas not to be aware of his current work.

“Despite their affinities,” you write, “Manet and Degas had notably different temperaments, ambitions, and sensibilities.” Which two paintings in the show best demonstrate those differences?

At the Musée d’Orsay and the Met, the unexpected pairing of Manet’s Nana (1876–1877) with Degas’s slightly earlier Interior (1868–1869) was a revelation for me. Both are genre paintings—scenes of everyday life. Both have an association with Émile Zola’s novels: L’Assommoir is the source for Nana, Thérèse Raquin (perhaps) for Interior. But whereas Manet’s language is unabashedly Impressionist, and his courtesan exudes confidence, agency, and authority, Degas remains wedded to a more traditional chiaroscuro, as befits a Realist painter, and presents an encounter that is mysterious, unsettling, and possibly violent. Degas’s scrupulous working method involved preliminary sketches and studies. Manet’s Nana would appear to have been painted quickly, without preparatory studies—a hallmark of Impressionism—but in fact we know from the plaintive reports of his models that posing for him was a long and laborious process. Manet reworked his canvases incessantly and may have started over again any number of times.


Both Nana and Interior share certain symbols of sexual congress: the female protagonists’ state of undress; the undergarments strewn carelessly about the room; the presence of the male client (or suitor). The latter is almost cropped out of Nana; he struggles to keep his seat on the velvet canape at right. In Interior he is shown with his hands in his pockets, blocking the door and glowering. Note his top hat on the commode in the background at left: If indeed it is his, when was it placed in that dark corner, so far away from its owner?

What first piqued your interest in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French painting?

When I attended Oxford in the late 1970s, you could not study art history as an undergraduate. I went up to read Modern History, took all the French topics I could, and was lucky enough to study in my first year with Simon Schama, who introduced me to T. J. Clark’s books. In my final year I took the one art history course available, a semester on Baudelaire and the artists of his time given by Francis Haskell, who was the most intellectually stimulating person I had ever encountered. I applied to work with him on my doctorate. My thesis was on collectors of modern French painting in Paris at the end of the ancien régime. I did most of my research in archives in Paris, but a year’s fellowship in the Paintings Department of the J. Paul Getty Museum, then housed in the replica of the Villa dei Papiri in Malibu, introduced me to the pleasures of working directly on paintings, drawings, and sculptures. This set the course for my curatorial career.

What can a museum director offer his readers that other art historians or art critics cannot?

As a museum director, I am especially aware of the lengthy gestation of exhibitions, the hazards (and pleasures) of negotiating loans from museums and collectors, as well as the need to secure funding for exhibitions and their catalogs. I am also attentive to how exhibitions are labeled and introduced by wall texts. These are the means by which museums introduce their publics to the art on display; it is a delicate balancing act of providing the appropriate information to help the viewer see more without burdening them with extensive reading—guiding their interpretation without imposing one. (I review all the exhibition labels at the Morgan and admire the individual voices and styles of the curators.) I am always encouraged by the ambition and coherence of the shows I write about in the Review. The presence of Manet’s Olympia at the Met, for example, is a cause for celebration. I bristle somewhat when I hear criticism that certain works have failed to appear in a given show, as if that invalidates the undertaking as a whole. In a successful exhibition only the curator and exhibition organizer will ever know which loans did not make it to the final installation.

What are some other causes for celebration in the city’s museums today?

There are a number of excellent exhibitions that will be closing soon, so readers in New York should make sure to see the Neue Galerie’s superb “Max Beckmann: The Formative Years, 1915–1925,” which closes on January 15, and MoMA’s definitive “Ed Ruscha/Now Then,” closing on January 13. The elegant and moving “Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at the Frick” closes on January 7, but fortunately the loan of Giorgione’s magnificent Three Philosophers from Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum will remain on view there until February 4. I would be remiss not to encourage readers to see “Spirit and Invention: Drawings by Giambattista and Domenico Tiepolo,” which runs through January 28 at the Morgan. And for a museum visit without a sell-by date, I would highly recommend the newly reinstalled European galleries at the Met, which present their unparalleled collection of paintings with a sensitivity and coherence that are truly inspiring.

Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in