'There’s a wonderful sense of balance between the painter and the draughtsman at work'

Hélène Rouart in her Father’s Study (1886), Edgar Degas (1834–1917) National Gallery, London. Bridgeman Images.

Quentin Blake says:
‘Any one of a dozen paintings by Degas could be my favourite, but I choose this one because I retain the vivid memory of it being revealed to me years ago when it was still in private hands. There’s a wonderful sense of balance between the painter and the draughtsman at work; everything impressively but delicately held in check by a sort of formal geometry, and, not uncommon with Degas, the discreet presence of works of art of other periods. Whatever his reputation as a misogynist, Degas’ portraits of women must surely be among the most intelligent—the most acknowledging of their individual identity—of the 19th century.’

Quentin Blake is an artist, exhibition curator and illustrator, well known for his collaboration with Roald Dahl.

Art critic John McEwen comments:
No surprise that Quentin Blake selects Degas (previously De Gas, the original spelling), who said all he wished for his funeral oration was: ‘He greatly loved drawing.’ Hélène Rouart was a daughter of Degas’ lifelong friend, Henri Rouart. ‘For you there is no commission, no work, no anything that I would not leave for the pleasure of seeing you,’ Degas wrote to him as an old man. They were school friends and Degas served under his command in the Franco-Prussian war.

Rouart was an industrialist with a pioneering interest in refrigeration, but also a collector, a financial backer of the Impressionists and a good enough painter to be included in seven of the group’s original eight shows. This is one of several likenesses of the family, which occupied Degas into the 20th century and form part of his final portrait cycle. He fussed away at this large painting for over a decade. Hélène stands amid her father’s collection—glass-encased Egyptian pieces, a Chinese wall hanging, a Corot landscape and a barely attributable Millet drawing.

That she is minimised by the alpha-male chair, and dutifully positioned, only emphasise that the portrait is almost as much of him as her. Even her arms might be tenderly resting on his shoulder. Nonetheless, she was already engaged— Degas left out the ring—and duly married. Degas disliked art analysis: ‘Yesterday I dined at the Rouarts. There were his sons and some young people—all talking art. I blew up. What interests me is work, business, the army.’

This article was first published in Country Life, May 27, 2009