“I assure you no art was ever less spontaneous than mine…of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament—temperament is the word—I know nothing.” ~Edgar Degas
Edgar Degas, best known in the public imagination for his more sentimental, impressionistic works—ballet scenes, race tracks, opera and music hall scenes—was, first and foremost, a student of the human figure. With the current exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), Degas and the Nude, a first-ever sweeping survey of some of his best and also least-known figurative works, here is an artist who still has the capacity to shock and surprise. Pulled from the extensive holdings of the MFA, The Musee D’Orsay, in Paris and dozens of other private and public collections, Degas and the Nude offers a retrospective of his work over a fifty-year time frame, from his days as a classically-trained student, to his ‘modern’ work at the turn of the 20th century. Much to the dismay of many late 19th century critics and the Parisian public-at-large, Degas, the radically-inventive artist, challenged a then, time-honored establishment’s approach to representing nude subjects, as he relentlessly strove to capture the most intimate and disarmingly candid moments in their private lives. artes fine arts magazine
The nude figure was, in fact, critically important to the art of Degas from the beginning of his career in the 1850s to the end of his working life at the dawn of the 20th century. The MFA exhibition presents works in every medium that Degas practiced: drawings, both academic and experimental; paintings made for official exhibitions and those never seen by the public in his lifetime; pictures in pastel, the medium most associated with the artist; sculpture, both in wax and bronze; printed media, including etchings, lithographs, and the monotype which he mastered. This common thread throughout the show is the human figure, transformed in his hands from the classically portrayed symbol of perfection and grace—to the most modern of demystified subjects—where composition, color and objectivity became his signature style. But, this was to be an approach to subject matter that, for Degas, would be more evolutionary than revolutionary.
In his student years, Degas was captive to the nostalgic tastes of the past, as were so many French artists working and learning in the state-sanctioned, tradition-bound ecole d’art. Like so many Romantic era painters who went before, he initially wanted to be a history painter: to paint monumental stories from the past, the Bible and classical mythology. The exhibit features drawings from those years, as he studied the nude form in both the classroom and abroad, in the museums of Paris and Italy. Following the traditional plan of a young artist, he sketched classical sculpture and works by renaissance masters, like Michelangelo and Botticelli. Also working with live models, he began to adopt his own style, capturing likenesses that would soon appear in his own paintings. He later painted his only ‘historical’ work, Scene of War in the Middle Ages, showcasing the use of nudes in support of his desire to create an important work. Exhibited in the annual show of the Academie des Beaux Arts, in Paris in 1865, its portrayal of violence and complex action can be broadly understood as an illustration of war’s atrocities, but also an examination of man’s inhumanity toward women in a time of war. It would be Degas’s first and last historic painting, as he was about to step off in a new direction: interpreting the nude body—not in classical or historical terms—but as a contemporary figure in her own setting.
According to show curator and MFA’s Chair, Art of Europe, George Shackelford, “For Degas, these early years weren’t just an education in history, technique and anatomy, but something much more. As he relentlessly copied the nudes of the Old Masters and drew from live models, he developed a desire to be rigorous, but also rigorously original: a desire he would bring to bear in his important early paining of the nude, Young Spartans Exercising, and that would continue for the rest of his career.” Degas was in many ways, his own teacher, insisting critically, “that I get it into my head that I know nothing at all. That is the only way to go forward.”
The son of a Parisian banker, Degas was closer to Manet than any other Impressionist in age and social background. Manet, who he met in 1862, and his artistic circle gradually persuaded Degas to turn from history painting to the depiction of contemporary life. The two artists were present and involved in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the humiliating siege and blockade of Paris that brought the city’s population to near starvation. The civil war that immediately followed, pitting Socialist Communards against Republican monarchists, led to further wide-spread death and chaos in the streets, leaving an indelible mark on both artists and the intellectual community as a whole. With the restoration of government and civil order, the Impressionists once again turned their attention to pastoral and bourgeois themes—in celebration of the ‘new’ France, while Degas headed in a very different direction.
In the 1870s, Degas set out to work on a series of nudes that were neither classically-based nor studies for larger paintings. In fact, this series of monotypes were decidedly anti-classical, even as the idealized body of his earlier works gave way to more natural interpretations. Largely unknown until after his death, the works depict prostitutes in Paris’s high-class brothels. The pictures are explicit in detail—emphasizing the prostitutes’ heavy, full breasts, large bodies, and luxuriant pubic hair—and sometimes sexually explicit as well. Degas never intended these pictures to be seen publically. Both intimate and revealing of both subject and artist, they represent an extended engagement by the artist with an indecent, but widely accepted, underbelly of Paris bourgeoisie society. They were based on observation and study, but also on contemporary public opinion regarding sanitation, disease, morality and social standing.
Upon closer examination of a work like The Serious Client (1876-77), Degas may be invoking a role that John House (Impressionism: Paint and Politics, 2oo4), calls the flâneur-detective. Always the objective observer, the artist enters the forbidden world of the brothel “to find order and meaning in the seeming incoherence of the modern urban environment.” The standard markers of difference—class, sex and race—are very much at play in many of Degas’s works, and his brothel monotype series is no exception. Given the context of the pictures, the artist is making clear distinctions between male and female, working and upper class, master and servant. The women are portrayed through posture and dress as being clear about their functionary role. The setting, by extension, is pictured as conspicuously overdone, yet hermetically sealed from the outside world by mutual agreement among all parties. Men of influence move through the space—typecast as in control, on view…and fully dressed to reflect their professional status in society.
For a brief period of time, in the 1870s, Degas embraced the view of certain members of the scientific community, who believed that physical characteristics were seen to relate to social standing and typecasting. Individual physiognomy was thought to predetermine such traits as intelligence, criminality, and emotional stability. Ironically, this male-generated theory was held to be particularly attributable to members of the opposite sex. In the brothel series, as well as in some early ballet drawings and painting, Degas was inclined toward typecasting, where working-class dancers were shown with snub noses and slightly simian features, conforming closely to stereotypical ideas of the physiognomy of the lower classes. Fortunately, for his career and reputation, Degas ultimately rejected these theories, going on to become a leading proponent of artistic representation of the working poor.
As an employed technique, monotype was considered an experimental and contemporary medium. Lacking an etched or engraved plate, the process depended on paint or ink being applied directly to a smooth metal plate, which was then run through a press. Special effects and changes in the images were an inherent part of the process, with certain parts of the finished image left to chance. Degas fully exploited this characteristic in his use of monotypes to represent the settings and figures in the brothels. Spontaneity and loosely-defined details characterized the finished product—an important step for the artist as he moved away from his classical training and into the realm of sensory impressionism.
Degas’s focus shifted again in the late 1870s, when he turned his attention to the outside world. Here, his female models were pictured in private settings, often alone: lounging, reading, stepping into or out of the bath. Recurring themes became a feature of his work, with naturalism ‘coloring’ his style as he moved farther away from the classical traditions that were his roots. Still enamored of monotypes, Degas continued to rely on the medium as he broadened his repertoire of subjects. But now, he was running inked plates through the press twice, creating ambiguous, sensual and shadowy images that could then be further enhanced with chalk and colored pastels.
Nude Woman Standing, ca. 1878 (left: See End Note 5) invites the viewer to share a private moment with his model. In this remarkable work, consciousness, rather than nudity, is the principle theme. As if caught unaware, the woman has withdrawn into herself, appearing to forget for the moment that she is in the presence of another. We marvel, today, at reality TV participants, as they reveal all in front of prying cameras; yet this work illustrates how easily we can slip the reins of self-consciousness and retreat into our own thoughts and emotions. Cool flesh tones on pale blue paper help to avert the simmering sensuality that would ordinarily accompany a drawing of this kind. The figure grips her temples, elbows resting on her knee. Posed against a stark background, evidence of her toilette is nowhere to be seen. She is frozen in contemplation—a static drama unfolding before our eyes. Degas’s mastery of the human gesture is in evidence here: the artist’s machinery of illusion in full swing as he asks us to consider this simple scene as an homage to everyday life and our own vulnerability, uniting us in our humanity.
Degas exhibited small pastel nudes in the Impressionist exhibit of 1877. Now affiliated with the Impressionists, he sought safety and expanded recognition in their numbers. Nude Woman Drying Herself, 1884-92 (near right, End Note #6) was completed during that time in the hopes that it would serve as a showpiece for his skills and garner the attention of buyers and the critics, either with the Impressionists, or on his own.
His friend Henri Gervex had exhibited a large painting of a nude, Rola, in 1878; its treatment of a naked prostitute provoking both public admiration and criticism. At the same time, painter and collector, Gustave Caillebotte was finishing large-scale male and female nudes, including Man at His Bath, 1884 (above right, End Note #7). Degas’s unfinished Nude Woman Drying Herself is evidence of his intention to create a modern oil painting with the scale of Gervex’s canvas, but with a greater sense of narrative detachment than he had demonstrated in the pastels, monotypes and etchings of the previous decade, in keeping with Caillebotte’s unabashed realism.
The last Impressionist Exhibition in 1886 was a pivotal moment for Degas. He showed new works—including a group of bathers. The exhibition checklist announced a “Suite of female nudes” by Degas: “bathing, washing, drying themselves, wiping themselves, combing themselves or being combed.” These works represent one of Degas’s highest achievements as an artist. Executed in pastel, the medium held strong appeal for him since it yielded effects of line, tone and color simultaneously. As he had done with monotype, the artist fully exploited the expressive possibilities of the medium: wiping and blending colors, smudging and carving into the surface with the butt-end of his paint brush.
As most contemporary museum visitors know, dancers were a favorite subject of Degas. He remained fascinated with the moving body throughout his career—specifically the dancer’s body. First, he would sketch them nude, or work their images in clay or wax. Carefully studying these gestures, movements and poses at moments of stillness, he would then clothe the dancers in tutus for final versions in oil or pastel. While no longer actively portraying prostitutes, his interest in ballet was not far removed from this unseemly side of Paris culture. Unlike today’s classical dancers, 19th century ballerinas generally came from working class families and, because they exhibited their scantily-clad bodies in public—something that ‘respectable’ bourgeois women did not do—they were widely assumed to be sexually available. They were often ‘sponsored’ by wealthy businessmen, who exchanged their patronage for sexual favors. Several of Degas’s paintings contain images of these men, sitting on the sidelines of a rehearsal; or conversely, mothers of the dancers hovering nearby at rehearsals and performances in order to safeguard their daughters’s virtue.
Right: After the Bath, Woman with a Towel (1893-97). See End Note # 9.
This careful analysis of his subject, and strong reliance on the studio setting to achieve a finished piece becomes an important way to understand that, while Degas was a champion of the Impressionist movement (and accepted as one of their own in exhibitions and in personal friendships), his working style did not qualify him for what contemporaneous critic, Jules-Antoine Castegnary called, “modern forms of naturalism.” By this he meant a certain spontaneity-of-response by the artist (plein air painting, for example), together with an objectivity of representation. While Degas certainly qualified in the latter, his allegiance to draftsmanship, boldly-calculated compositions, and a methodical (classically-styled) approach to repeatedly rendering his subject, placed him in a unique category. Yet, as a consequence of his studio-based use of seemingly-spontaneous mark-making, his bold use of color and loosely-configured drawing techniques, today we consider Degas’s work an important part of the Impressionist genre.
Drawings and paintings during this period highlight Degas’s continuing focus on the backs of his models. Trained in the tradition—and an admirer—of neo-classicist painter, Jean Auguste Ingres, who famously extolled the female back as a sensual anatomical feature (see: The Valpincon Bather, 1812), Degas, too, was to follow in the footsteps of this master of the neglected side of the nude, throughout his career. Since the 1870s, Degas had used the back as a locus of character and expression: in depictions of women walking, of mounted jockeys or dancers in the wings. But the bather’s back is more complex. Degas almost never depicted his bathers, except from behind. Perhaps he did not want to show their faces, to create identifiable individuals—women with names, identities and personalities. The female form, for Degas, was now more iconic or symbolic, than real, as they focused on the same everyday tasks, like bathing or drying, common to everyone. By stripping his bathers of specifics, the back served as a locus for the body’s expressive powers and poetic center.
In the late 1880s and 1890s, Degas’s art making underwent a transformation—one that was subtle, but also completely revelatory. His nudes became a vehicle for experimentation, in style and method, as well as impact. His earlier, methodical etchings gave way to expressive lithography. Drawing, the cornerstone of his practice, shifted from the careful pencil academies to strokes of charcoal or black chalk for forceful studies of nude bathers. He tossed aside the care with which he had approached Scene of War in the Middle Ages in the 1860s to create oil paintings with celebratory swaths and daubs of paint. As a key sign of the times, Impressionism transitioned to the more personalized work of the Post-Impressionists. And perhaps, (like Monet during this same period) Degas began fell prey to failing eye sight, dogging him as he aged. Anatomical accuracy became less important to the artist than expressing emotion and feeling that were palpable in the work.
On exhibit, The Tub (1886), like other works in which Degas achieves drama with unusual perspectives on his subject, assumes an oblique—even severely geometric angle: the tub and the crouching woman, both vigorously outlined, form a circle within a square. The remainder of the rectangular format is filled by a shelf so sharply tilted at an unnatural angle that nearly shares the plane of the picture, itself. On this shelf Degas has placed two pitchers (note the curve of the small one fitting into the handle of the other), which are not in-the-least foreshortened. Here, the tension between two-dimensions and three—surface and depth—comes close to the breaking point. The carelessly placed brush, with its handle hanging precariously over the edge, tempts the viewer to reach out and grab it before it tumbles to the floor.
Degas would revisit the same theme and position with his models, over a period of two decades. With slight variations, all would be placed in the same anonymous pose, with strict physical demands placed on the women during the posing process. The pose he demanded was difficult to hold. “Standing on her left leg, her knee slightly bent, [the model] lifts her other foot behind her with a strong movement, graspsher foot with her right hand, while her left elbow shoots out to maintain her balance,” as one observer described it. “For a whole minute, she remains almost immobile, her muscles all taut; but suddenly her left leg shifts and—in order not to fall—she has to give it up.”
In the 1890s, Degas’s propensity to revisit familiar poses reached new levels. Repetition intrigued him, as did (in all likelihood) the enthusiastic market for his work by galleries and collectors. He began copying himself by placing smooth tracing paper over previous works to translate poses, one to the other. During this time he also began using recent charcoal drawings and tracings as the basis for finished pastels, as he had done with monotypes earlier in his career. Repetition could simply be a matter of revisiting favorite poses, but for Degas, the concept was more complicated. With changing times and shifting social values in the face of Western Europe’s industrialization and modernization, themes of war’s inhumanity and the abuses of women meant that motifs embodied in some of Degas’s work, going back decades, were still resonant. The image of a woman in one bathing scene—head bent, one arm curved across her chest, the other lifted into the air, palm upward—as though gesturing, partly in defense, partly as a warning, was reminiscent of a figure in his violent 1963-65, Scene of War in the Middle Ages. Across thirty years, the emotions remain constant, while the social context changes.
By the late 1880s, Degas’s eyesight had begun to fail, perhaps a result of an injury suffered during his service in defending Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. After that time he focused almost exclusively on dancers and nudes, increasingly turning to sculpture as his eyesight weakened. In his later years, he was concerned chiefly with women bathing, entirely without self-consciousness and emphatically, not posed. Despite the seemingly fleeting glimpses he portrayed, he achieved a solidity in his figures that is almost sculptural.
In later life, Degas became reclusive, morose, and given to bouts of depression, probably a consequence of his increasing blindness. His monotype Coastal Landscape ,c. 1892 (left, below, End Note #13) an unusual work from this period, is an unexpected instance of Degas presenting an outdoor scene with no obvious figures, showing an imaginative and expressive use of color and freedom-of-line that may have arisen, at least in part, as a result of his struggle to adapt to his deteriorating vision. Show organizers invite viewers to detect the subtle suggestion of a reclining figure disguised in the hillside, however; positing that it served as a gentle send-up to Monet, the consummate landscape painter, from an old colleague and adversary who made the representation of the human form his life’s work
Near the end of his career, Degas was already well-known throughout Europe and in North America. Collectors from Paris, London, New York Chicago and Boston vied for his work, many purchasing his bathers from the 1880s and 90s. His reputation was also strong among his peers, bridging the generations between the Paris avant garde and a new generation of artists for a new century. In 1918, at the sale of Degas’s atelier after his death, the broader public viewed many of his works for the first time. Most connoisseurs were shocked by what they saw—dozens of works by this painter of dancers on the stage, of jockeys, laundresses, and milliners. “We looked at these walls,” wrote one of Degas’s friends, “covered with works that were powerful but horrible, which frightened us all the more because the energy of their lines and the beauty of their tones kept us from looking at or thinking of anything else.”
By Richard Friswell, Managing Editor
Rare film footage of Edgar Degas, Paris, c. 1914:
- Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917), La Toilette (1884-86), pastel over monotype laid down on board. Private collection. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
- Edgar Degas, Scene of War in the Middle Ages (1863-65), oil on paper. Paris, Musée d’Orsay. ©Photo: Musée d’Orsay/rmn. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
- Edgar Degas, The Serious Client (1876-77), monotype on woven paper. National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa. Purchases 1977. Photo ©National Gallery of Canada. National gallery of Canada, Ottowa. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
- Edgar Degas, The Siesta—Scene from a Brothel (1878-80), monotype in black ink. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Katerine E. Bullard Fund in memory of Francis Bullard 61.1215. Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
- Edgar Degas, Nude Woman Standing (ca. 1878), black chalk and pastel on blue wove paper. Paris, Musée d’Orsay. Photo: © Musée d’Orsay/rmn. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
- Edgar Degas, Nude Woman Drying Herself (1884-92), oil on canvas. Brooklyn Museum, Carl H. de Silver Fund 31.813. Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
- Gustave Caillebotte (French, 1848-1894), Man at His Bath (1884), oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Museum purchase with funds by exchange and from the Charles H. Bayley Picture and Painting Fund, Edward Jackson Holmes Fund, Fanny P. Mason Fund in memory of Alice Thevin, Arthur Gordon Tompkins Fund, Gift of Mrs. Samuel Parkmen Oliver—Eliza R. Oliver Fund, Sophie F. Friedman Fund, Robert M. Rosenberg Family Fund, and Mary L. Cornille and John F. Cogan Jr. Fund for the Art of Europe. Photo: ©Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
- Henri Gervex (French, 1852-1929), Rolla (1878), oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris (on deposit at Musée des Beaux Arts des Bordeaux). Bequest of M. Bérardi, 1926 BX E 1455. Photo: Musée des Beaux Arts des Bordeaux/Art resource, NY.
- Edgar Degas, After the Bath, Woman with a Towel (1893-97), pastel on brown cardboard. Harvard Art museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of mrs. J. Montgomery Sears. Photo: Allan Macintyre ©President and Fellows of Harvard College. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
- Edgar Degas, The Tub (1886), pastel. Paris, Musée d’Orday, Bequest of Comte Isaac de Camondo, 1911. Photo: © Musée d’Orsay/rmn. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
- Edgar Degas, After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Neck (1895-98), pastel on woven paper. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, Bequest of Comte Isaac de Camondo, 1911 RF 4044. Photo: Musée d’Orsay, dist. RMN; photographed by Patrice Schmidt.
- Edgar Degas, Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot (modeled between 1896-1911, cast between 1921-31), bronze. Paris, Musée d’Orsay, acquired through the generosity of the heirs of the artist and of Hébrard. Photo © Musée d’Orsay/rmn. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
- Edgar Degas, Coastal Landscape (ca. 1892), pastel on paper. Collection Marie-Anne Krugier-Poniatowski. Boston only.