“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
The 19th Century French artist Edgar Degas is commonly reference as an impressionist a categorization the reflective studio painter rejected.
As he has been reported as saying “If I were in the government I would have a brigade of policemen assigned to keeping an eye on people who paint landscapes outdoors. Oh, I wouldn't want anyone killed. I'd be satisfied with just a little buckshot to begin with… No art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and the study of the great masters. Of inspiration, spontaneity and temperament I know nothing.”
Born into a wealthy family, Degas studied art in his 20’s in the realistic inclined academic tradition of Paris’ École des Beaux-Arts producing and exhibiting works in the popular historical style of the day. After a chance meeting Edouard Manet when he was 30 Degas’ subject matter moved from the drawing rooms of Paris to the cafes, the boulevards, the shops, the dance studios and the race courses of the city that was to become his muse.
Participating in all but of one of the eight Impressionist exhibitions between 1874 and 1886 Degas held the other members at arm’s length never completely adhering to their philosophy. His interests lay in the depiction of movement that stemmed from a long held affinity with horse racing and the portrayal of truth in the scenes he painted.
As he has quipped “I feel as a horse must feel when the beautiful cup is given to the jockey.” To which he has added “Make portraits of people in typical, familiar poses, being sure above all to give their faces the same kind of expression as their bodies.”
These two interests came together for Degas in his many paintings and sculptures of ballet dancers from the rehearsal rooms and the opera stages of his beloved Paris at time when ballet had fallen from its pedestal much like historical painting in the eyes of his fellow avant-garde artists.
As the art historian John Richardson told Vanity Fair “Ballet had sunk to the level of kitschy interludes in operas—interludes that allowed bored operagoers enticing glimpses of women’s usually concealed legs.”
And about which Degas is reported to have said “They call me the painter of dancers. They don't understand that the dancer has been for me a pretext for painting pretty fabrics and for rendering movement.”
Likewise the double portrait of his friends the actress and model Ellen Andrée and the artist Marcellin Desboutin in arguably Degas most controversial painting
was panned by critics, who called it ugly and disgusting. A second showing six years later suffered a similar fate with the Irish art critic George Moore stating “"Heavens! – what a slut! A life of idleness and low vice is upon her face; we read there her whole life. The tale is not a pleasant one, but it is a lesson." Which caused Degas to come to the defense of his friends publically declaring their moral virtue.
Considered by many to be a misogynist in a misogynistic age and an anti-sematic who in later life became a curmudgeon unable to paint due his failing eye sight, Degas art was an unsentimental rendering of the vagaries of the life that surrounded him.
As he has been reported to have said “Conversation in real life is full of half-finished sentences and overlapping talk. Why shouldn't painting be too?”
The exhibition Degas & the Dance is currently on show at the Toledo Museum of Art until the 10th of January next year.