Saturday Art: Edgar Degas
(Picture courtesy of chilipeppered at flickr.com.)
The summer in D.C. has had a respite of cool weather, but still the National Gallery of Art provides a nice break from the dismay the city produces in many ways. Today we’ll be enjoying the cool spaces of the gallery where Edgar Degas displays his care and his interest in human character while he stays away from it.
The artist known as the cause of Impressionists’ breakup, a ‘curmudgeon’ and dissident with all, painted with perfectionist and traditional ideal. Edgar Degas showed intense dedication to his work, seldom declaring a work finished and gaining a respect for technique while his work remained on the edge of disrespect for its departures from accepted practices.
He also deeply disliked being associated with the term “Impressionist,” which the press had coined and popularized, and insisted on including non-Impressionist artists such as Jean-Louis Forain and Jean-François Raffaëlli in the group’s exhibitions. The resulting rancor within the group contributed to its disbanding in 1886.…As the years passed, Degas became isolated, due in part to his belief that a painter could have no personal life. The Dreyfus Affair controversy brought his anti-Semitic leanings to the fore and he broke with all his Jewish friends. His argumentative nature was deplored by Renoir, who said of him: “What a creature he was, that Degas! All his friends had to leave him; I was one of the last to go, but even I couldn’t stay till the end.”
The work of Degas sold well enough to reverse his family’s loss of fortune and keep him a solid member of Paris’ art community.
Degas’s work was controversial, but was generally admired for its draftsmanship. His La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans, or Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, which he displayed at the sixth Impressionist exhibition in 1881, was probably his most controversial piece; some critics decried what they thought its “appalling ugliness” while others saw in it a “blossoming”.
In part Degas’ originality consisted in disregarding the smooth, full surfaces and contours of classical sculpture … [and] in garnishing his little statue with real hair and clothing made to scale like the accoutrements for a doll. These relatively “real” additions heightened the illusion, but they also posed searching questions, such as what can be referred to as “real” when art is concerned.
The suite of pastels depicting nudes that Degas exhibited in the eighth Impressionist Exhibition in 1886 produced “the most concentrated body of critical writing on the artist during his lifetime … The overall reaction was positive and laudatory”.
Degas stands in chosen isolation but not lacking in admiration for the quality of his vision and his fascinating representation of the life he saw around him.