Edgar Degas’s pastel drawing “Waiting” epitomizes his art and resonates with our own experience of big-city life
Impressionist artist Edgar Degas was one of the greatest draughtsmen of his day. He drew constantly throughout his career and ultimately came to regard drawing as a greater accomplishment than painting.
Over his lifetime Degas came more and more to treat his own drawings as works of art in their own right. Many of them, such as Waiting, were made for sale. My new book Edgar Degas: Drawings and Pastels is an account of Degas’s life as seen through his drawings, which had a considerable impact on the development of modern art.
A Conservative Radical
As a man Degas was full of contradictions. A bachelor and very set in his ways, Degas was conservative in politics and radical in art; sociable one day but reclusive the next; encouraging and condemning in equal measure; charming and witty when inclined but increasingly acerbic and excoriating with age. He was a brilliant raconteur and full of bons mots of a type that sometimes lost him his friends.
Many of Degas’s statements about art were recorded for posterity and are important for an appreciation of his work. “A picture is something that requires as much trickery, malice, and vice as the perpetration of a crime” is one such aphorism—reflecting the complexity of Degas’s often-experimental working methods.
Pushing Himself to the Limit
Having set out to be a history painter as a way of achieving critical and financial success, by the 1870s Degas declared a preference for depicting scenes from modern life—dancers, jockeys, singers, milliners, prostitutes, laundresses, and women at their toilette. His drawings of the ballet are particularly memorable. Most of these record life as it was experienced backstage at the Paris Opéra in the rehearsal rooms, green-rooms, dressing rooms, in the wings, and in performance.
By means of these drawings, Degas learned both about the technical aspects of ballet and about the lives of the dancers, who from a young age worked to the point of exhaustion, injury, or physical collapse. Indeed, ballet can be seen as a metaphor for Degas’s own exacting practices as an artist, in which he pushed himself to the limit. And even though he provided such a comprehensive record of the ballet in Paris during the second half of the 19th century, Degas typically underplayed the results, telling one of his admirers that, “the dancer is nothing but a pretext for drawing.”
Yet, what drawings they are! Waiting, made about 1880–82, shows two figures seated on a bench in a room or passageway of the Paris Opéra. A dancer leans forward to clasp her ankle while another woman, perhaps a chaperone dressed in black and with an umbrella, looks down at the ground. Degas must have witnessed such scenes hundreds of times, and he recorded them in numerous studies. But from the 1880s he withdrew more into his studio and devised compositions made from previous drawings or from memory, exploring a series of motifs that created a synthesis of his experience of the ballet.
An Enigmatic Composition
Waiting epitomizes Degas’s art. The composition presents no problems for the viewer at first sight, but it is in reality surprisingly enigmatic. Why exactly are these two women waiting? Is it a break in rehearsal or an audition? What is the relationship between the two women—are they mother and daughter, or sisters? Degas plays upon such uncertainties and enjoys teasing the viewer, just as he was the master of representing people at their most vulnerable or at moments of nervous tension.
The viewpoint is oblique, with the figures seen slightly from above. The empty space is perplexing, both open and closed. Similarly, there is an emotional contrast between the dancer in a white tutu, who is “active,” and the formally dressed figure, who is “passive.” In effect, Degas succeeds in portraying a sense of isolation in the midst of a big city that is elsewhere pulsating with life, and it is this feeling of loneliness and anonymity in a crowd that is comparable with our own experiences of modern life.
Degas approached the human predicament like a scientist, but he presents his findings with unsurpassed artistic skill and finesse. Significantly, his chosen medium for these representations of modernity was pastel, which was more closely associated with the elegance of the 18th century than with the stresses and anxieties of urban life towards the end of the 19th century. Such a choice typifies Degas’s contrarian spirit, but it was also a wonderful vehicle for his technical abilities as a draughtsman and colorist.
Edgar Degas: Drawings and Pastels (Getty Publications, 2014) is available from the Getty Store.
Text of this post © Christopher Lloyd. All rights reserved.