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Degas (1834-1917)

( Originally Published 1955 )

Maverick of the French Impressionist movement. Withdrawn and independent in character, Degas associated with Impressionism in its origins, but was one of the first to deviate from the principles of the group in order to practice a highly personal idiom. For instance, to him the line of the Old Masters, or of Ingres, was preferable to the formless visions of Monet, and he was by no means committed to out-of-door painting. However, in him the compositional scheme is much more fractured and clipped; human beings are often withdrawn from each other and seem to exist in their own worlds of contemplation; the "Japanese" tilt of the perspective structure gives a strong sense of two-dimensional pattern to the canvas. All these things suggest the development of painting in our century. On the other hand, his colors, like the Impressionists, are strongly Rococo in taste, and he revived the eighteenth-century art of pastel.

Degas was a man of wealth, conservative background and prejudice, lacking the sociability and co-operativeness that mark the Impressionists as a group. Destined for law, he turned to painting. He was instructed by Lamothe, a follower of Ingres at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He is supposed to have met Ingres and to have been told, "Draw lines, young man, many lines, either from memory or from nature; that is the way you will become a great and noble artist." His paintings prior to 1870 were rather academic: either consciously historical like the Young Spartans Provoking Each Other to Combat (1860, London) or exacting portraits like the Belleli Family (1859, Louvre). These were painted during a long Italian journey. In these years he became friendly with Manet and came to the attention of Puvis de Chavannes. Following the Franco-Prussian war he was active in the Cafe Guerbois discussions, and on a trip to New Orleans painted the Cotton Exchange (1873, Museum, Pau), which has most of the elements of his mature style. Its observation of unusual poses, the conflict between perspective rush to the right and figure-pattern to the left, its severed forms-all are characteristic.

During the early years of Impressionism Degas was a driving force, an important organizer of the Impressionist exhibitions. But eventually doctrinal differences (such as Line) came between him and the group and in the end his misanthropic character asserted itself. From 1886 on he lived virtually as a recluse, painting for Durand-Ruel, who sold his works directly to collectors: He worked in several media: oil, pastel, engraving, lithography and sculpture. His subjects were of several basic types. Best known of his outof-door subjects are the scenes of the race track. In his interiors he invariably assumes an oblique point of view derived in part from Japanese prints, which had been popular since the 1850's. The coordinates of these interiors are often stated by pieces of furniture, watering cans, etc., from which the figure patterns evolve. Perhaps his favorite interior scenes were those with ballet dancers. In them the graceful ballerina is often submitted physically or compositionally to the most brutal and ugly pose, or (like a Watteau man) she balances on a pinpoint and then flares out in feathers of color. The bathing and preening of women he examined constantly from an odd "keyhole" vantage point, and as his technique became more brusque, the conventional beauty of woman was lost in an agitated color pattern. His constant scrutiny of the everyday scene led him to portray a series of occupational types in which women are caught in all the awkwardness of ironing, laundering, etc. And he shows the Impressionist preoccupation with the world of pleasure, the cafe and bistro, except that in such social settings the figures are surprisingly isolated by pictorial means, almost sadistically de-humanized. In his most characteristic late portraits his approach to the sitter is also oblique.

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