Impressionist painter Edgar Degas (1834–1917) is well known for his gauzy paintings of dancers, his motion-filled images of horses, and his striking portraits. But the artist also lived a fascinating life—from a privileged upbringing to family bankruptcy, from defending Paris alongside Manet during the Franco-Prussian War to feuding with the same artist over a portrait.
Getty Publications has recently published two biographical essays, both titled “Memories of Degas.” One is by the Irish writer and critic George Moore and the other by the Munich-born, London-based artist and critic Walter Sickert. Both Moore and Sickert were Degas’s contemporaries and write from personal experience with the artist. In this episode, Getty associate curator Emily Beeny discusses the life of Degas as it is revealed in these two essays.
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Memories of Degas publication
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
EMILY BEENY: I think a huge part of the attraction of dancers is the question of gravity, the question of balance, the question of the distribution of weight; that he’s able to study in these figures in a unique way.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Getty Museum curator Emily Beeny about the life of nineteenth-century painter, Edgar Degas.
Edgar Degas was born in 1834 and died in 1917. Getty Publications has recently published a chapbook on the life and work of the French artist. The book includes two essays; the first, an appraisal of the artist’s work by the Irish writer and critic George Moore, published originally in 1890 as Degas: The Painter of Modern Life, then republished in 1918, after the death of the artist, as Memories of Degas; and a second text of the same title, Memories of Degas, by the Munich-born but London-based artist and critic Walter Sickert.
I discussed these little-known texts on the very well-known artist with Emily Beeny, the Getty Museum’s associate curator of drawings. Emily, thank you for joining me in this podcast.
BEENY: Thanks for having me.
CUNO: Now, I suppose most people think of Degas as an Impressionist painter. And if they do, they might think of his paintings as resembling those of Monet and Renoir, with a light palette and free brushwork, when in fact, Degas’ palette and brushwork
were much different, more like the paintings of Manet, who never exhibited in the Impressionist exhibitions. Tell us about Degas’ life and work from his earliest years in the 1850s to the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874.
BEENY: So not unlike Manet, Degas is born into a quite well-to-do Parisian family. In his case, it’s a banking family. His father had family connections in Italy. There’s a Neapolitan branch to the sort of Degas family banking enterprise. And his mother was actually an American, from New Orleans, with family in the cotton business.
He attends the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, which was sort of the fanciest prep school in Paris at the time, there making lifelong friends of Ludovic Halévy, who goes on to become an important artistic collaborator as a writer and librettist and so on, later in— in their lives. And then Paul Valpinçon, who is a member of a— an important collecting family and is also Degas’ entrée to the world of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, the great French classical painter of the nineteenth century.
So after graduating, he sort of studies law in a very desultory way, while also immediately registering to copy at the Louvre. In order to get permission to make a copy in oils at the Louvre, you had to register. And so Degas registers in, I believe, 1854, as a pupil of Louis Lamothe, who was a painter from Lyons. Sort of, if I may say so, unremarkable, a sort of academic artist, active in Paris, a disciple of Hippolyte Flandrin, who was himself a pupil of Ingres. And so there again is another sort of through line from Ingres to Degas.
And so although Degas himself spends relatively little time at the official state-sponsored art school called the École des Beaux-Arts, really only like a semester and a half. I think we can say that he has a fairly academic formation in the—the studio of Lamothe and kind of at least spiritually, at the knee of Ingres.
CUNO: How old is he when he’s at the École des Beaux-Arts?
BEENY: About twenty-one. So he’s at the École des Beaux-Arts for this brief period, before bankrolling his own journey to Italy.
CUNO: Could you stop for a minute and tell us about the family’s relation to Italy? My memory is something like this. That the grandfather was sort of speculating in grain at the time of the French Revolution, and had to sort of flee, and fled to Italy and…
BEENY: I think that’s right. I think that’s how the Italian—
CUNO: …the son, the father of Degas, was then raised in Naples, I think it was, right?
CUNO: And in the banking business.
CUNO: So when Degas goes to Naples on this trip, and then to Florence after Naples, but this trip to Italy, is he going to see his father? Is his father alive at that time?
BEENY: So his father is in Paris. Degas spends three years in Italy in his first stay, and then goes back several times, often to settle family business at the time of a death of an uncle, to settle an estate, to sell a piece of property to one of his cousins. There’s a period in his life when he’s traveling relatively regularly to Naples, especially. But the longest stay really is the ‘56 to ’59 period.
CUNO: And that’s when he paints there.
BEENY: Exactly. And so we have these really riveting, magnetic portraits, particularly of family members in Naples and Florence. As well as a small number of self-portraits, including one very beautiful oil on paper that’s in the Getty collection.
But really, what takes him to Italy is the opportunity to study the Old Masters. His father really reveres the Italian primitives, and so is, I think, eager to support Degas’ study of them.
CUNO: And by primitives, you mean the fifteenth century?
BEENY: Yeah, and early sixteenth, early Renaissance, early Italian Renaissance art. And also to make studies of the antique, in a more sort of Classical way.
CUNO: I know he’s in Naples briefly. Then he moves to Florence, right?
BEENY: Mm-hm. Yes, he had relatives in Florence. So I believe it’s his sister Therese who has married a cousin. It gets quite complicated with the cousins marrying cousins in the Degas and Morbilli families, I must admit. But Therese marries Edmondo Morbilli. There’s a very beautiful portrait of them at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
So he spends some time there, and then he also spends some time in Rome, where he befriends Gustave Moreau, who will go on to become a sort of important Symbolist painter. And in later life, the two won’t have much to do with each other, but I think the early encounter is very important. They have a lot of sort of deep philosophical conversations about the meaning of art and about painting techniques. And also about Nicolas Poussin, whom they both sort of revere, the seventeenth century father of the French Classical tradition.
CUNO: Who spent most of his working life in Rome. Yeah.
BEENY: In Rome, exactly. Yeah.
CUNO: So while he was in Italy and he was painting portraits of his family. And these portraits always struck me as having great psychological intensity, because especially the Bellelli family, where clearly, the husband and wife don’t get along with each other. And it’s very—very good at capturing that dimension of life.
BEENY: Yeah. The Bellelli portrait is so fascinating. It’s interesting because I do think that yes, there are ways in which it does accurately capture sort of deep psychological undercurrents that seem to flow beneath the family dynamic there. But he’s also just totally captivated by the very specific beauty of his cousin, of Madame Bellelli, whom he sort of compares to this van Dyck portrait.
He is also using them as sort of exercises to figure out how to apply the lessons that he’s learning from his study of the Old Masters, to modern life, to his contemporaries.
CUNO: Do we know what artists he was particularly impressed by or interested in?
BEENY: Well, in that particular portrait, I think it’s hard not to see a little something of Holbein. But—
CUNO: Not a Florentine artist, after all.
BEENY: Not a Florentine artist, not a Florentine artist. And we have, also, very good records from his early sort of copying at the Louvre. So we know, for example, that the first picture he registers formally to copy at the Louvre is a portrait that was then attributed to Raphael. But we do sort of see him moving from a deep interest in Italian artists, at the end of the fifties, into the sort of fashion for Spanish painting. He becomes quite interested in some of the Spanish painters at the Louvre. So he makes a study after a picture then attributed to Velázquez at the Louvre, in ’62, which is actually how he meets Manet.
CUNO: So this is after, then, he’s finished his time in Florence.
BEENY: So he comes back from Italy in 1859, and sets up his own independent studio in the 9th Arrondissement, this neighborhood at the foot of Montmartre, where he will spend the rest of his career in one studio or another, always within this very sort of tight little neighborhood. He begins to frequent the Café Guerbois, which was, at that time, really a center for artistic and literary life in Paris, frequented also by people like Manet and essentially, all of the future Impressionists.
CUNO: Yeah. So how did he meet Manet?
BEENY: So he meets Manet, so the story goes, at the Louvre, actually in the galleries of the Louvre. He’s supposedly sitting in front of this Velázquez portrait, trying to copy it directly onto a copper plate for an etching. And Manet, who is deeply engaged in the etching revival at the beginning of the 1860s and has quite a bit of experience by ’62 in this medium, says, “Oh, that’s not really the way you wanna do it,” and gives him some pointers. And thus begins their friendship.
CUNO: Did Degas look up to Manet?
BEENY: I think that Manet was an impressive figure for Degas. And Degas certainly was always very eager to try to persuade Manet to exhibit with the Impressionists. Because I think he did feel, especially in the 1870s, that their work was perhaps more closely aligned than was Degas’ work with that of some of the Impressionist landscape painters.
BEENY: But the difference in age is really only two years. And they come, also, from very similar social backgrounds. And so, I’m not sure that it’s really as much of a, you know, mentor-mentee kind of relationship as it is really a friendship between equals.
CUNO: Yeah. Manet was a much more sociable figure than Degas, wasn’t he?
BEENY: Yes. So Manet was famous for his charm, for his wit. Also his elegance as a dresser. And the stories about Degas, who was widely admired for his intellect, also, like Manet, often have to do with his sharpness. So that his sense of humor was, perhaps, less generous than Manet’s, was a little more—
CUNO: A curmudgeon.
BEENY: A little more acerbic, yeah. Yeah, for sure. Actually, one of my favorite details that’s relayed in the Sickert biography is the one that has to do with the way that Degas liked to dress. I don’t know if you remember the story.
CUNO: Tell me.
BEENY: So Sickert meets up with Degas to go pay a visit to the Impressionist dealer, Durand-Ruel. And Degas shows up in a sort of dumpy flannel suit that Sickert, makes a joke. He says, you know, “None of the great English painters would go to Agnews, the great dealer in London, dressed like that.” And Degas says, “Well, Englishmen, have an outfit for every occasion. They put on a special suit just to write a letter, and then they change into something else.”
BEENY: And he says, “The real thing is to dress like a beggar, but be the Grand Condé.” So the Grand Condé is sort of one of the grandest aristocrats of the French seventeenth century. Degas is very sort of proud of, dressing like a beggar, but knowing that on the inside, he is this great force.
CUNO: Yeah. So there’s this extraordinary picture of Manet with his—sitting on the sofa and his wife playing the piano, that’s reproduced in the book.
CUNO: Tell us about that.
BEENY: Actually, I love Moore’s description of this painting. He says, “For anyone who knew Manet, looking at this picture is not like looking at an ordinary painting; it’s like seeing a ghost.” So vividly did Degas capture the sort of essence of Manet, the sort of sprawling pose on the sofa as he listens to his wife play.
This picture seems to have been a gift from Degas to Manet. And so the story goes, Manet actually cut off Degas’ portrayal of Madame Manet, because he felt that it did not do her justice. And having seen the way that Manet had butchered this picture, Degas then took it back and added a new strip of canvas on the right-hand side, intending to, quote/unquote, “restore” his own picture.
And then I believe that there was a further exchange of a picture of plums, once they had sort of worked out their differences. But there does really seem to have been a quarrel, and a quarrel related to this picture.
CUNO: So Degas was famous for visiting his friends who had pictures of his, and taking the pictures off the wall and taking them back to the studio to work on them, because he never thought a picture was finished. And so I always had the impression that this was that kind of evidence of that, to the kind of reluctance that Degas had to let go of things.
BEENY: Mm-hm, mm-hm. I mean, absolutely. Though also, I think evidence of Manet’s fondness and protectiveness of his wife. His own beautiful portrayal of Suzanne Leenhoff, who was, in fact, an accomplished and indeed professional pianist, seated at the piano, dressed in a black gown, that’s today at the Musée d’Orsay, I think shows just how deep his affection was for her, and how he might not have felt that any other artist could get her quite right.
CUNO: So let’s back up to Degas coming back to Paris from Italy.
CUNO: What is Degas painting then, and how’s Degas begin to exhibit his paintings?
BEENY: So immediately upon his return from Italy, Degas is working on a couple of pretty large-scale, quite ambitious history subjects. First, Semiramis, the Babylonian queen, overlooking the construction of the city of Babylon, a picture now—
CUNO: Why did he paint that painting?
BEENY: Well, I think that that picture really demonstrates Degas’ early ambition to be a history painter. So paintings of scenes from mythology, Classical history, from the Bible, in the middle years of the nineteenth century, this remains by far the most prestigious genre in the French art world, history painting. So I think that he tackles these subjects in order to declare himself a history painter. And also in order to compete with idols like Ingres and Poussin.
So these sorts of subjects from Classical history would allow him to sort of compete in the same arena with great masters of the past. And there is certainly a coolly linear, relief-like approach to the arrangement of figures in the Semiramis that does seem to point straight to Ingres, and then back to Poussin. So he’s sort of inserting himself in a French Classical tradition in that picture, I think.
CUNO: And about the same time, I think there’s a painting of a scene that would seem to be a history painting, but it’s actually set on the stage of an opera, or on a stage of a musical.
CUNO: And so I wondered if there’s some interest in the history painting as a kind of theatrical device.
BEENY: Mm-hm, as a theatrical enterprise. I think that’s a really interesting point. And I think that in his earliest history subjects—so the things that he’s working on immediately upon his return in about 1860—which are the Semiramis and then the Young Spartans Exercising, I think we already, in those pictures, start to see his interest in movement and bodies, and freezing movement or capturing movement in some way. That interest will ultimately be best satisfied in the dancing and horseracing pictures.
But I think the painting that you’re talking about is Mademoiselle Fiocre in La Source. Which is his first exhibited painting of a ballet subject. It’s today in Brooklyn, and bewitching and bewildering, I find. We don’t feel at all clear on where we are in space. There’s this woman astride a horse that’s drinking from a stream. It’s not at all clear that we’re in a theatrical situation, except that the composition has a bizarre dreamlike quality that’s slightly disorienting.
So he shows that in ’68 at the Salon. But the first piece that he exhibits, in ’65 at the Salon, is somewhat closer to his earlier ambitions as a, quote/unquote, “history painter,” which is the Scene of War in the Middle Ages, which is a deeply disturbing and very violent picture that’s now at the Musée d’Orsay.
CUNO: And so it’s a oddly-shaped canvas, because it’s very narrow and long, is what I recall. In other words, it seems as if it might be a prelude to some other larger, more ambitious painting.
BEENY: It’s a scene without a sort of convincing center. There are these sort of torturously tied up female nudes and these fearsome archers. A pretty convincing case, albeit a speculative one, has been made for that painting actually as a response to the American Civil War, specifically a response—
CUNO: Because his family was there.
BEENY: Exactly. So several members of his family actually came from New Orleans as refugees, to France, in the early sixties. And so there’s a possibility that that picture, exhibited in ’65, is meant as some kind of response.
CUNO: What about the painting that is called The Interior, or sometimes called The Rape?
BEENY: Yeah. So that’s a picture that has been connected to the work of Émile Zola and to, a novel in which he does sort of describe this, you know, the scene of violation of this kind. But it is very ambiguous. There’s this seated woman wearing just a corset, sort of partly turned away from us. There’s a very intimidating male figure with his legs sort of widespread, and crossed arms, half in shadow, standing at the doorway, perhaps to block her exit from the room.
He called it mon scene de genre, my genre picture. Which is, of course, a very vague way of describing such a dramatic and evocative and troubling scene. But I think that he sort of wanted, perhaps, to preserve the ambiguity of the action in that painting.
CUNO: Yeah. All these paintings that we’ve been talking about of his do seem to sort of filter reality through a kind of a concept of history painting or theatrical painting or literary painting. While it’s history painting, it seems to be conceived as a literary device, rather than a kind of historical subject. So there’s a kind of artificiality of it, and a kind of dramatic theatrical aspect to it. Is he already a devotee of the theater?
BEENY: Yeah. So the theater plays an enormously important part in the life of Degas. He becomes a subscriber to the ballet and a regular at the opera. And he’s also friends with various playwrights and people involved at the opera.
But his first sort of behind-the-scenes depictions of the opera, of the rehearsal studios of the old opera house in the Rue Le Peletier, seem to date from 1871.And so the first of those that he sells, he sells to Durand-Ruel in 1872. That’s a picture called The Dance Class, that’s now in the Metropolitan Museum.
CUNO: Yeah, he seems to be shifting his interest from the performance to the rehearsal. There’s a sense of the twisting and turning of bodies in relationship to each other, and the exercise, and the kind of extraordinary degree to which the body can be put to kind of— under stress in moments of dance.
CUNO: It’s as if that’s the moment he could paint really—and I think he maybe even said—that he could paint the Classical figure…
CUNO: …in modern times.
BEENY: Yes. Well, I think there’s a way in which ballet dancers, for him, are sort of modern nudes found in nature. Because the bodies of dancers are much more exposed, their anatomy is much more clearly visible, particularly as their muscles strain to achieve these various poses and steps, than you would ever seen for an ordinary woman on the street in Paris. You know, sleeveless arms and exposed stockings; these women are very nearly naked. They’re functionally wearing nineteenth century underwear in the rehearsal studio, so it is an opportunity really to study the body in a modern-life context.
And I feel as though he almost goes into the studio in order to rehearse his dancing pictures, in order to really get to understand the technique. It’s like he goes to the barre, you know, to learn the positions and the steps. And then he goes back to the stage later on. And particularly his very latest ballet scenes often happen in a sort of strange netherworld, somewhere between dream and reality, that I think is a huge part of the appeal of the stage for him, this sort of electric-lit parallel universe.
CUNO: Yeah, the light coming through the gauzy costumes of the dancers, which is capturing a kind of coloristic effect that is both rooted in observed nature, but that is of interest in itself for him as a painter of pictures.
BEENY: Mm-hm, absolutely. Well, and I think that he soon discovers that pastel is actually a medium ideally suited for this kind of depiction, because of the unique sort of gauzy light effects that you can achieve with this dry medium. And through experiments with manipulating oil, as well. So draining the oil out of oil, in order to create these much more sort of matte effects that are so useful to him in portraying expanses of powdered skin, made-up faces, tutus made of tulle, satin slippers that are all sort of characteristics of ballet costume.
CUNO: So we haven’t even gotten yet to the Impressionist exhibitions.
CUNO: So he’s exhibiting in the Salon.
CUNO: But does he have a reputation?
BEENY: Well, I think that his reputation is growing, partly in relation to his regular appearance, actually, at the Café Guerbois. That he’s part of this circle that includes Manet, that includes so many future members of the Impressionist group. So he’s known as an intellect and a wit and a thinker about painting, sort of in parallel, in tandem to his actual practice as a painter, already by the end of the sixties.
The first Impressionist exhibition takes place in 1874, and that really does allow him to show much more of his recent work. You know, the horseracing pictures, the ballet pictures. The show happens in the spring, and then in the fall, following the death of his father, the sort of gravity of his family’s financial situation is suddenly revealed in this sort of terrifying way, that the bank is on the verge of collapse. The Degas are being suddenly pursued by creditors. And so he really starts having to sell work.
And so he starts producing what he called mes articles, my products. So decorated fan mounts, small-scale pastels, pastelized drawings, very often of ballet dancers or horseracing subjects that he knew would find a ready market. And so he becomes more and more known in that way, partly because he has to sell. He has to exhibit because he has to sell.
CUNO: And just before that exhibition in 1874, there’s a war with the Germans: the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. And so he leaves Paris at that time to go to New Orleans, is that right?
BEENY: Many future members of the Impressionist group sort of wait out the Franco-Prussian War in London. So among them are, you know, Monet and Pissarro. But Degas actually remains in Paris and joins the National Guard and fights in the defense of his city, along with Manet, with whom he actually has some disagreements about strategic matters, about the best mode of sort of defending the city. But he serves in the artillery. And then following the war, during the period of the Commune, he spends some time with friends and family outside of the city.
But his travels to New Orleans actually happen in ’72 to ‘73. So he goes to visit his two brothers, who have gone to New Orleans to go into the cotton business with their cousin. And it’s there that he paints the large-scale picture that’s today in the tiny town of Pau in the southwest of France.
CUNO: The cotton merchants.
BEENY: The Cotton Exchange, exactly. Exactly. Which is sort of a group portrait, sort of a genre scene, that shows all of these men in, you know, black waistcoats and hats silhouetted against these piles of white cotton.
BEENY: While in New Orleans, he also paints various other family portraits, possibly including the Getty’s Convalescent, whose sort of status as a portrait or as something a little bit more amorphous remains up in the air.
CUNO: Because his sister was going blind, or a woman in the family was going blind.
BEENY: His brother’s wife goes blind. I think the sort of speculation about the Getty picture is that it might be a portrait, actually, of Degas’ cousin, rather than his sister-in-law. So he has this sister-in-law who goes blind in New Orleans. And in fact, whom his brother then abandons, not so long afterwards. Fo—basically, following the family bankruptcy by a few years, he abandons his wife in New Orleans and moves to New York. And I’m not sure Degas ever really quite forgives his brother for that betrayal.
CUNO: But that sense of blindness, of loss of sight, the kind fear that that would—
BEENY: That is absolutely the sort of fear of blindness is absolutely a looming fear in Degas’ life from quite early on. Already in about 1877, Degas has started complaining about problems with his vision. And we know that, you know, by the eighties, he says, you know, that his greatest wish is, that he could just have good enough vision to be able to work ten hours straight.
BEENY: And we know that he is blind at the end of his life. And that some of his contemporaries I think maybe possibly try to flatter him by comparing him to Homer, you know, the great blind…
CUNO: Blind Homer
BEENY: …epic poet, so famously painted by Degas’ idol, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. And in fact, there’s actually a photograph in the Getty collection that’s sort of a parody of this idea. But it’s like a tableaux vivant, staged photograph, of Degas as the Homer of Ingres, flanked by the Muses.
CUNO: Yeah, yeah. So he comes back from his trip to New Orleans and that’s 1872 when he comes back?
BEENY: He comes back in early ’73, yeah.
CUNO: Does he? So there’s a year or so before he joins the Impressionist exhibitions of 1874.
CUNO: So tell us about the organization of those exhibitions and his role in them.
BEENY: So he is one of the key organizers of the exhibitions. And I think from the beginning, has a slightly different idea of what the group ought to be from some of the other members. So he feels, for example, very strongly, from the beginning, that you should not be able to exhibit both at the Salon and with the Independents, as the group was originally called.
So he didn’t want the Independents’ exhibitions to become kind of a Salon des Refusés, a you know, “salon of rejects.” He also certainly rejects, most violently of any member of the group, the moniker of Impressionists. And as you know, that word Impressionist comes from the title that Monet assigns to a picture that he exhibits at the very first exhibition in ’74, Impression, Sunrise, a picture that’s now in the Musée Marmottan in Paris. And so one, sort of snide critic decides, ‘Oh, you’re gonna call it Impression, Sunrise? Well, I guess you’re all Impressionists then.’
But the sort of associations of rapid brushwork, a sketch-like approach, catching nature on the fly that come with the word Impressionist do not at all apply to Degas’ work or to his method. He is nothing, if not painstaking. He’s all about repetition, all about careful preparation and study. And all about depicting nature as realistically as possible.
So he wanted the group even, perhaps, to be called, the Group of Realists. I mean, he was much more comfortable with words like realist or naturalist than he was with Impressionist. And this sort of becomes a growing tension within the group, a growing source of sort of animosity between him particularly and Gustave Caillebotte, who is an important member of the group, not only because of his own contributions as a painter, but also as a sort of financier, or bankroller of the shows, and collector of his friends’ work.
CUNO: Now, is it about this time that he meets George Moore, or George Moore becomes aware of him?
BEENY: So it seems like George Moore meets him in about ’77. ’76, ’77.
CUNO: And who was George Moore.
BEENY: Mm-hm. So Moore will go on to become a pretty important naturalist-slash-realist novelist working in London in the 1880s, and then an important figure in the Celtic Revival at the turn of the century. But at the moment when his path crosses with Degas’, he’s sort of trying to be a painter, which doesn’t work out so well.
He’s taken a small inheritance and moved to Paris, and sort of registered to study at the Académie Julian, which is a pretty open sort of studio situation, not terribly selective, with pretty liberal approach to instruction. But his real education, Moore’s real education that he’s getting in art, is at the Café La Nouvelle Athènes, which is to the 1870s what the Café Guerbois was to the 1860s. So sort of the center of gravity for these conversations about art and literature have moved, after the Franco-Prussian War, basically, to this café in the Place Pigalle. And so Degas is absolutely a regular; Manet is also absolutely a regular. And Moore is sort of soaking it all up.
There’s something of the dilletante about him, I would say, at this point. You know, I don’t know how seriously he’s really taking his artistic training, but he’s just drinking in this sort of glamorous bohemian life of Montmartre and having affairs and so on that he recounts with great relish in this memoir that he publishes in 1886 called Confessions of a Young Man, that does also include some juicy and useful tidbits about Manet and Degas and others in that circle in the seventies.
Degas seems to have respected his intelligence, which is a detail that Sickert actually relays to us about the relationship between Degas and Moore. But I’m not sure that George Moore is quite as much of an intimate friend, quite so much of an entime du la maison, as I think he puts it, as he would have us believe.
CUNO: Yeah. So we have Degas there in the 1870s in the exhibitions of the Impressionists, as they’re soon to be called, are developing and Moore’s in among them, in some respects. And give us a sense of what Degas was doing. Because it wasn’t just that he was painting.
BEENY: Yeah. So at the moment when their paths cross in the mid-1870s is sort of the beginning of some of Degas’ wildest formal experiments. So it’s when he’s really plunging increasingly into pastels, into the use of drained oil paint, as we’ve discussed, to create these sort of matte distemper-like surfaces.
It’s also the moment when he’s really experimenting with monotype. So he and his friend Ludovic Lepic are both really experimenting with this method that’s very similar to how you would’ve pulled a counterproof of a drawing in the eighteenth century. So you take an original drawing and you take a piece of paper, and you run them together through a printing press, and you get a reversed image of your drawing that’s a sort of unique impression made directly from the original drawing. So Degas would typically pull two impressions, if you can say that, two monotypes, from each of his drawings, and would often use the second, paler one as the underdrawing for a pastel.
And so this actually allowed him to recycle motifs and compositions, to rework them in different ways, in order to achieve different effects. And this sort of experimentation really will inform his practice for the rest of his life. He becomes so interested in the possibilities of repetition, the refinement of line. Of course, the famous advice that he gets from Ingres is, “Draw lots and lots of lines.” And I think you can see all of these experiments, in some way, as extensions of his practice as a draftsman.
I think sculpture really is very much in the same kind of vein. It’s a way, for him, of drawing in three dimensions. So his sculptures, with the exception of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, were never intended for exhibition. He had sort of a horror of the idea that they would be cast in bronze and exhibited in a museum—which is, of course, how most of us encounter them.
CUNO: He never cast in his lifetime. They were only wax, is that right?
BEENY: That’s correct.
CUNO: He exhibited the Little Dancer, as you say, as a wax figure. Was that uncommon? Was that startling?
BEENY: Yes. It was extremely startling to see this almost waxwork, when it was first exhibited at the sixth Impressionist exhibition.
CUNO: Wearing an actual costume.
BEENY: Exactly. So the little fourteen-year-old dancer was dressed in a sort of tulle tutu, in an actual fabric skirt. She had a wig, made of real human hair. And she was tinted in different colors, and exhibited under a vitrine, in a way that for many of Degas’ contemporaries, for many visitors to the Impressionist exhibition in 1881, recalled a display at an anthropological or natural science museum. So there was a little bit the sense that she was being presented as a specimen of her class, frankly.
CUNO: Mm-hm. What do we know that Degas said about that?
BEENY: I mean, I think Degas was dismayed by the violent critical response. Though surely, he must’ve known that this was a slightly wild thing to do and that he was gonna get some sort of rise out of critics by showing, functionally, a waxwork at an art exhibition.
CUNO: In the glass case that he showed the Dancer in, as I recall, it actually was of the kind of box that the Egyptian figures were shown in. So is there a sense that he saw this exhibition of this Dancer as a kind of Classical figure? And that he was, therefore, caught by surprise in the violent reaction to it as something that was undignified and that was more like a natural history figure, rather than a Classical figure?
BEENY: Mm-hm. I think it is totally possible that he saw this, particularly sort of the polychrome aspect of this work, as connected to Classical sculpture and to much longer-standing traditions. Also to Renaissance, French Renaissance waxes. There are all sorts of precedents for mixed-media sculpture, colored sculpture, in the West. But certainly, the response was pretty violent, to that work.
But as we were saying before, it is, in fact, the only one of his sculptures that he ever intended to exhibit. The rest really were made for private purposes, for study purposes. The original waxes, many of which are now in the National Gallery in Washington, are really obviously improvised objects. So they’re built up from armatures of wire, but also sometimes paintbrushes and tufts of cotton and wine corks that he applied the wax, and the plasticine, and you know, clay to, in a, you know, sort of slightly jerry-rigged kind of way.
One of the wonderful things about Sickert’s account is that he gives us a little glimpse of how Degas actually used some of his waxes in his painting process, perhaps. He tells us the story of Degas showing him how he could turn one of these objects in candlelight, so that it would form different silhouettes against the wall. These wax models may have played a role in helping him figure out how to translate a complex three-dimensional pose into a two-dimensional image. It’s also the idea of creating these little wax models, I would say again, seems to me deeply related to Nicolas Poussin, to the great French Classicist.
CUNO: Yeah. Who’s famous for using models, clay figures, as a kind of basis for the composition of his paintings.
BEENY: Exactly. And it’s something that Gustave Moreau did, as well. So Degas’ friend from his youth in Rome also did something similar, you know, as a sort of aid in his compositional process. So there’s a connection there, too.
CUNO: Now, Moore, in his account of Degas, gives us a sense of the studio and the great mess that the studio was. And he called it “in perennial gloom and dust, with vast canvases of his youth piled up in formidable barricades, with great wheels belonging to lithographic presses.”
And as I remember, the difficulties that he had and the worries he had about losing his sight, is that he put these shades on windows. Unlike other artists, who might want the windows, these large windows free so the light would come in, he put these gauzy, dirty, canvas or cloth shades on the windows, to protect his eyes from the light.
BEENY: Mm-hm. No, the accounts that we have are of this twilit space. And that, I’m quite sure, was related to his struggle with his vision.
CUNO: Yeah. When does his great model, Ingres, die? And tell us about the story that Sickert tells, which maybe is fabricated, but a great story about the role that Degas played. Not in the death of the artist, but in other words, at the time of the death of the artist.
BEENY: So Ingres dies in, I think, January of 1867. I think that the story relayed by Sickert might conflate two separate visits of Degas with Ingres. So I think that probably, the connection is initially made in 1855, at the time of the Exposition Universelle, or the World’s Fair, in Paris, where there is to be a very large display of Ingres’ work, celebrating his achievement as a leader of the French School. And Degas happens to be a childhood friend of Paul Valpinçon, who is the son of an important collector of the work of Ingres. And so it’s through the Valpinçon that Degas gets to meet Ingres, and gets to receive the famous advice, “Draw lines, lots of lines.” Which of course, he takes very much to heart.
But the story that Sickert relays seems to have to do with maybe another visit in 1867. I don’t know that there is other documentary evidence of such a visit. But there is another World’s Fair in 1867, so it’s not impossible that he’s conflating the two World’s Fairs. But Sickert says that in Degas’ presence, Ingres collapses in what will end up as a fatal attack of illness. And the young painter, Degas, has to run around the corner and get Madame Ingres, so that she can take care of her husband. I don’t know that there is other documentary evidence to support this encounter, though it does have a lovely sort of Leonardo-dying-in-the-arms-of-François-Premier kind of quality.
CUNO: Right, right. It also is a great psychological moment, in which the young aspiring painter is there at the death of the great master painter.
CUNO: Now, Moore—getting back to Moore and his writings—he concludes his memoirs of Degas by saying that while Degas inspired many followers, no one was as great as he was. And these are Moore’s words: “The winds, it is true, have carried the seeds into other gardens, but none has flourished except in native soil. And the best result the thieves have obtained is a scanty hybrid blossom, devoid alike of scent and hue.” So he comes across, in this account of his recollections of Degas, as a kind of arrogant, difficult, self-centered figure. But at the very end, he seems to be someone who recognizes the great talent of Degas. But maybe he does it in such a way as to draw attention to himself, in the way he writes this thing as a kind of garden of influence.
BEENY: Yeah. I think that’s true. And I also think we shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which this is a jab at Sickert. Of whom he clearly feels a certain measure of jealousy. Sickert, as another intimate of Degas from the British Isles, another person who came to study at Degas’ knee as a young artist, and who is forging a successful career, and who many of his contemporaries, at least in London, did see as an heir to Degas.
By the turn of the turn of the century, he has become sort of the chef d’école of a new generation of British artists called the Camden Town Group, who settle in this working-class neighborhood in sort of North London. As much as he might not be as familiar to American audiences today, he is a towering figure in the British world of modern painting in the early twentieth century in London. And I think that Moore is a little jealous of him. So I think that’s partly what it’s about.
In talking about the seeds that have, perhaps grown in native soil, I think he’s probably talking about some of the Nabis painters, particularly Vuillard and Bonnard. And I think it’s Sickert who offers a lovely account of Degas’ criticism of, basically I think, Vuillard. Which is that he looks at a bottle of white wine on the table and he said, “Painters like that would turn this into a bouquet of sweet peas.” So that they would sort of disintegrate it into a pattern of brief little strokes, disregarding the solidity of the object.
Sort of solidity and gravity are such important qualities, I think, for Degas. Even to the end, even as, color and form seem like they might start to melt, I think a huge part of the attraction of dancers is the question of gravity, the question of balance, the question of the distribution of weight that he’s able to study in these figures in a unique way.
CUNO: Now, Degas was evidently offended by some things that Moore said about Degas’ family.
CUNO: But also about his repeating things that Degas said about Whistler. Tell us about that.
BEENY: Well, so Moore publishes this account of Degas in, I believe, 1890, for the first time, in the Burlington Magazine. So while Degas is still living.
CUNO: A London-based publication.
BEENY: Exactly. A sort of art world journal for the English-speaking world. And so Degas is aware of it, and I think is not so pleased. He has sort of a horror of journalists in general, of whom he says, “They’re not gonna help you sell a picture really, so what’s the use of them?” You know, that they only serve to fluff up artists’ egos or to sort of listen to themselves talk, basically. But he’s also a discrete and private and very much French and bourgeois person. And so any whiff of a mention of family scandals of which there certainly is one in this 1890 article that Moore publishes, is just anathema to Degas, and totally unforgivable.
So Moore make an allusion to financial troubles into which Degas’ brother had fallen in the Americas. He seems a little confused about the details. And Moore says that he only brings up this detail in order to show what a good man Degas was for helping his brother out. But given the sort of calamities of the Degas family in the mid-1870s, the loss of face, the loss of fortune, and sort of the loss of moral standing, in some cases, I think Degas wants to have nothing to do with anyone who’s interested in bruiting that stuff about in a, you know, newspaper, functionally.
So in addition to the bankruptcy of his father, in addition to one brother’s desertion of his wife, another brother, returns to France from New Orleans and precedes to shoot the husband of his mistress, and serves jail time for that. So there’s terrible stuff happening in the Degas family in the 1870s. And so I think Degas’ extreme privacy about that and his horror of newspaper reporting on the details of his personal life seems very understandable.
CUNO: Yeah. One gets the impression that Moore is writing this as much to advance his own career and credibility and position in the art world as it is to remark upon Degas.’ He’s using Degas as a vehicle for himself, unlike Sickert, who seems to have had a deep respect for the artist. Sickert writes, in his Memories of Degas, in 1917
BEENY: And Degas dies in 1917, so it’s a memory published after death, I mean I think that it’s really— it’s a remembrance of Degas. And I think there’s a way in which Sickert truly loves Degas as a fellow painter, and understands him as a fellow painter, in a way that Moore, who dabbles in painting but really, his talents lie elsewhere, I’m not sure that he could ever understand the achievement of Degas in the same way as Sickert, as a fellow artist.
CUNO: Well, Emily, thank you very much for taking us through this great life of Degas, as told to us by George Moore and Walter Sickert, in this little chapbook, which is a very handy and beautiful chapbook retelling the life of Degas.
BEENY: Thanks so much.
CUNO: Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts. Thanks for listening.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
EMILY BEENY: I think a huge part of the attraction of dancers is the question of gravity, the quest...
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