“Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist” opens Dec. 22 at the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College.
The exhibition seeks to shed light on the complex artist himself, his favorite themes, and the artists he called his friends.
The works in the exhibition show an unexpected side of Degas — namely as a masterful draftsman, said Dr. Alex Rich, PMA’s curator and director of galleries and exhibitions. In addition to drawings, etchings, lithographs, and monotypes, the show features Degas’ photographs and a bronze sculpture. The exhibition also includes more than 40 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.
Many of the subjects commonly associated with Degas’ work are featured in this exhibition, including ballerinas, horses and jockeys, café concert singers, bathers, beach scenes, and portraits of Degas’ peers.
“The exhibition presents Degas lovers with an intimate glimpse at his early drawings, as well as works from his more mature period during which he created the unique visual explorations of Parisian life that have gained him global renown,” Rich said.
Ballerinas were Degas’ most familiar subject, and he was known for depicting them often in scenes of everyday life. For example, a lithograph from 1889, “Danseuse prés de la poêle,” depicts a ballet dancer not rehearsing or performing but standing beside a stove reading a newspaper.
The earliest of his works in the show is an 1853 graphite drawing of his brother Achille, created when Degas was 19 years old and his brother was 15. 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.
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 etchings in the show, like an 1857 self-portrait, speak to Degas’ manner of creating art and to his eye for the future commercial potential for his work, Rich said.
Etchings in the exhibition are from plates Degas sold to Ambroise Vollard, an art dealer, publisher and distributor of prints by contemporary master artists. Before selling his etched plates to Vollard around 1910, Degas canceled them by incising a few thin lines through the final plates to make any further printings from them — especially any made after his death — 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,” Rich said.
Although the plates and the cancelation lines are rendered by Degas, prints made from the canceled plates can forever be distinguished by their imperfect compositions. Degas wanted Vollard’s and others’ future versions of his prints to be distinct from those impressions made during his lifetime, Rich said. “The posthumous life of many of Degas’ works — including his now-beloved bronze sculptures which were cast only after his death after models found in his studio — offers a fascinating art history lesson in itself.”
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.
This exhibition, formally titled “Edgar Degas, The Private Impressionist: Works on Paper by the Artist and His Circle,” was organized by Landau Traveling Exhibitions in Los Angeles, in association with Denenberg Fine Arts in West Hollywood.
The exhibition runs through March 24. The Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College is located at 800 E. Palmetto St. It is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sunday, 1-5 p.m. Admission is free. Please call (863) 688-7743 for more information. Read an essay written by Dr. Rich about the Degas exhibition here.