Art, Art & Archives, Prints and Drawings, Publications

The Human Predicament, in Pastel

Edgar Degas’s pastel drawing “Waiting” epitomizes his art and resonates with our own experience of big-city life

Waiting / Degas

Waiting, about 1882, Edgar Germain Hilaire Degas. Pastel on paper, 19 x 24 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 83.GG.219. Owned jointly with the Norton Simon Art Foundation, Pasadena

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.

Self-Portrait / Degas

Self-Portrait, about 1857–58, Edgar Germain Hilaire Degas. Oil on paper, laid down on canvas, 8 1/4 x 6 3/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 95.GG.43

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.

Waiting - detail of ballet dancer / Degas

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.

Waiting - detail of figure in black / Degas

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 - coverEdgar Degas: Drawings and Pastels (Getty Publications, 2014) is available from the Getty Store.

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One Comment

  1. QingXing
    Posted April 29, 2014 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    I like reading, but art reading always delightful.

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      #ProvenancePeek: Titian in Boston

      Every art object has a story—not only of how it was made, but of how it changed hands over time until it found its current home. That story is provenance.

      Portrait of a Man Holding a Book, in the collection of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, is no exception. The MFA carefully details the painting’s Italian provenance on its collection page, but the path of this object even since then is complex.

      Between 1901 and 1907, Portrait of a Man Holding a Book entered the stock of no less than three galleries, purchased from the Italian family who owned it first by Agnew’s in London, then by Trotti in Paris, and then by Cottier in New York (marking its movement from the Old World to the New). A collector purchased it from Cottier, and the painting was held privately for 36 years.

      That collector was Frederick Bayley Pratt (1865–1945), son of Charles Pratt, oil magnate and founder of the Brooklyn Institute that bears his family’s name (incidentally, this writer’s alma mater!). 

      The Knoedler Gallery dealt frequently with members of the Pratt family. A quick peek into the searchable database of Knoedler’s stock books turns up nine instances in which a Pratt (Charles and Mary, Frederick’s parents, or Herbert and John, his brothers) bought works, as well as five instances where they sold works. This Titian portrait is one of those instances. Frederick Pratt sold the work to Knoedler in early April of 1943, and by the 10th, it had been snapped up by the Museum of Fine Arts.

      Knoedler shared the sale with Pinakos, an art-dealing concern owned and operated by Rudolf J. Heinemann. Purchasing works in tandem with other dealers was a widespread practice amongst powerful art galleries of the time; nearly 6,000 records in the Knoedler database had joint ownership.

      The stock books of the Knoedler Gallery have recently been transformed into a searchable database that anyone can query for free. You can find this Titian under stock number A2555.

      Portrait of a Man Holding a Book, about 1540, Titian (Tiziano Vecellio). Oil on canvas. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Charles Potter Kling Fund. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; stock and sales books documenting the painting’s sale by M. Knoedler & Co.


      ProvenancePeek is a monthly series by research assistant Kelly Davis peeking into provenance finds from the M. Knoedler & Co. archive at the Getty Research Institute.


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