Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist

Works on Paper by the Artist and His Circle



Edgar Degas is one of the most familiar “name” artists in the entire history of art — and, this winter, the Polk County is excited to bring Degas to Polk County in a wide-ranging exhibition of privately-owned works entitled Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist. The exhibition seeks to shed light not only on the artist’s favorite themes but also on the complex man himself and on the artists he called his friends. Beyond the art of Degas, the show also boasts more than forty additional works on paper by Degas’ artist colleagues, including Mary Cassatt, Édouard Manet, Paul Cézanne, Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres, Honoré Daumier, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

One of the three best-known Impressionists, alongside Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Degas (1834-1917) was an essential contributor to the rise of modern art as we know it today. With his eclectic focus on scenes of everyday life in late 19th-century France — raising the mundane to a worthy subject matter unto itself — Degas broke the mold, using his inimitable eye and uncanny sense of composition to push the boundaries of “realist” art. In Degas’ work in every medium, he transports his viewers into an important and sometimes unsettling position of voyeurism, catapulting us back in time to witness the world as we might actually have encountered it, imperfect, cropped oddly, and with subjects not posed perfectly for our viewing pleasure. 

            The collection featured in the exhibition belongs to Robert Flynn Johnson, an art historian and art connoisseur, who curated the show from the works he has amassed over the past four decades. The exhibition offers visitors the rare opportunity to see a different side of Degas from that they might otherwise expect — namely as a masterful draftsman. All the familiar Degas subjects are here:  ballerinas, horses and jockeys, café concert singers, bathers, beach scenes, and portraits of Degas’ peers. At the same time, though, as a showcase centered around his works on paper (and more expansively on works in similar media by members of his artistic circle), the exhibition also presents Degas lovers with a more intimate glimpse at an under-recognized facet of Degas’ oeuvre — his drawings — together with works from his more mature period during which he created the unique visual explorations of Parisian life that have gained him global renown.

When one thinks of Degas — as art lovers have done for nearly 150 years now — ballerinas most likely come to mind. They are by far his most familiar subject and his most recurrent theme in his works in all media. Degas was fascinated with the dedicated young French girls who honed their craft as dancers, and his repeated treatment of them as his subject have stood the test of time. But, as is typical of the artist, Degas rarely approaches ballerinas in an obvious way; we espy them more often in banal moments between performances or rehearsals, less as entertainers putting on a flawless show than as young women behaving like actual young women.

In a charming lithograph from 1889, Danseuse prés de la poêle, for instance, Degas depicts a ballet dancer standing beside a stove reading a newspaper. We see her at left, paying us no attention, and we look at the scene from several viewpoints at once. The floor of the studio is observed from a sharply raking perspective that is a frequent device used by Degas, making it seem like we hover over the rehearsal room, not standing on the floor with the girl but as if suspended from above. 

Here, as in his most famous works, Degas wants to show us the ordinary inner worlds of those living in what was then modern day Paris. Now a century since his death, Degas grants us access into the lives of that city’s denizens and their authentic behaviors and pastimes. While ballerinas are a central focus for Degas throughout his storied career, they were but one of many subjects to which he returned again and again. In fact, the artist distinguished himself from his peers in the Impressionist movement by his desire to examine all walks of life in Paris. As such, in addition to dancers, other main focuses of the exhibition are Degas’ studies of horses and jockeys, his artist friends, and the nude.

Further, many of the pieces in the show have rarely, if ever, been seen by the public before. Many carry viewers back to a lesser-known period in the artist’s career, before Degas was “Degas the Impressionist.” Indeed, the earliest of his works in the show dates to a beautifully subtle graphite drawing he made of his brother Achille from 1853, when Degas was only nineteen-years-old and his brother four years younger. In the portrait, Achille sits comfortably, slightly slouched and with one arm draped informally over the back of the chair upon which he sits, while appearing to look out just beyond the viewer as if lost in thought. Usually the examiner of the world around him, Degas also takes himself as his subject in a number of self-portraits from the next year, amidst carefully-rendered line studies that reveal the artist’s academic training. Echoes of the Old Masters and Ingres — still the reigning Neo-Classical artist at the time — abound in his line drawings, and one can easily see the origins of Degas’ gentle balance between academic and Impressionist styles.

The self-portraits in the exhibition — including a view in profile and an etching — illustrate how Degas saw himself as a young artist and help viewers visualize the man behind the legend. Many of the etchings in the show, like an 1857 self-portrait, speak both to Degas’ manner of creating art and his eye for the commercial potential for his work. While a prodigious etcher and monotypist, Degas was known to have made very few prints from his etched copper plates himself — sometimes as few as twenty — and rarely sold or published them. Around 1910, Degas decided to open up the possibility of extending the print runs of his etchings, the plates for many of which he had executed decades earlier. However, Degas elected not to make any more prints of his own from those plates himself. Instead, in a nod toward the art market, self-promotion, and, perhaps late in his life, posterity and legacy, Degas sold many of his plates to Ambroise Vollard, an art dealer and publisher who had begun making a name for himself as a distributor of prints by contemporary master artists. (In fact, astute Museum visitors will recall that Vollard has popped up several times as a commissioner of print series featured in recent exhibitions, including those on Renoir and Chagall.)

Before selling his etched plates to Vollard, Degas canceled them. For Degas, canceling plates involved incising a few thin lines through the final plates, so as to make any further printings from them notably less pristine than those first ones he printed by his own hand. Prints made from Degas’ canceled plates look like they have scratches in them as a result, but this was Degas’ intention when he sold the plates for future printing. While the plates — and the lines of cancelation — are rendered by Degas’ own hand, prints made from the canceled plates can forever be distinguished by their imperfect compositions. Degas wanted his etchings printed and distributed, but he wanted Vollard’s and others’ future versions to be distinct from those impressions made during his lifetime.

            Alongside these etchings, the exhibition features Degas’ work in lithography, monotype, photography, and sculpture, demonstrating the artist’s varied output and underlining his knack for experimentation. Degas was not an artist completely unto himself in this period, though, and his friends and peers make their own statements in the show, both in portraiture by Degas and in their own work. Whether it is Degas’ beloved depiction of his best friend Mary Cassatt, spotted from behind at the Louvre, or an etching by Cassatt herself of her mother and sister, a cast of familiar stars of the art world emerges throughout the exhibition. Among them, the Romantic artist Eugene Delacroix; nearby, the writer Charles Baudelaire, as depicted by Manet, the father of modern art, who, like Cassatt, is also represented as Degas’ portrait subject; the cartoonist Daumier, poking fun at the hustle and bustle of Parisian city streets; Cézanne, grimacing out at us from a self-portrait; Camille Pissarro, delicately etching a scene of Rouen; and many others.

These friends and associates joined Degas in teasing out a world now seemingly so distant from our own. Some exhibited alongside him, and others influenced him, just as he did them. And in this way, in this show, we see not only rare examples of the work of Degas but also gain entrance into his own inner world, too. Along with his art world peers, Degas’ examinations of life in late 19th century France have become inextricable from our collective visions of that era, and in Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist visitors have the chance to re-consider that past in brand new ways.

— H. Alexander Rich, Ph.D., Curator and Director of Galleries & Exhibitions