Degas: The lively, powerful visionary who toiled and ground his way to genius

A century after his death, Edgar Degas is the subject of two new exhibitions in Britain. Matthew Dennison appraises these tributes to a thoughtful, meticulous artist.

‘No art was ever less spontaneous than mine,’ confessed Edgar Degas.

‘Of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament I know nothing.’

Instead, the artist emphasised the importance of ‘reflection’. He revisited favourite subjects – milliners, laundresses, dancers at the barre, women bathing or arranging their hair, horses and race-goers at fashionable race meetings – ‘over again, ten times, one hundred times’, driven by what one acquaintance labelled his ‘passion for perfection’.

Degas died a century ago. His death is commemorated in exhibitions at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum and the National Gallery in London. At the centre of the National’s show is an outstanding collection of Degas pastels and oil paintings on loan from Glasgow’s Burrell Collection.

Edgar Degas - The Dance Examination (1880)

Edgar Degas – The Dance Examination (1880)

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Highlights include The Rehearsal of the Ballet Dancers (1874, pictured at the top of the page), justly acclaimed for its bravura evocation of sun-flecked space and the inclusion – simultaneously humorous and poignant – of a wooden spiral staircase with a tortured tilt mirrors the pose of Degas’ half-glimpsed dancers.

Called ‘Drawn in Colour’, the show is supplemented by works from the gallery’s own collection, such as the giddily vibrant image of a girl at her toilette, Combing the Hair, and further loans, among them a characteristically awkward sketch, Russian Dancers, which William Burrell donated to the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1949.

The Fitzwilliam show, ‘A Passion for Perfection’, is larger in scale, scope and intent. More than 50 loans from collections across the globe supplement the Museum’s own significant holdings to showcase an artist whose work embraced multiple media, whose painting was inspired by Classical sculpture, Old Master paintings, Japanese prints and photography, and whose working practice did, indeed, embrace reflection.

Charcoal and pastel drawing entitled 'La Toilette', depicting woman bending over, behind her to left a maid standing holding a garment, by Edgar Degas

Charcoal and pastel drawing entitled ‘La Toilette’, depicting woman bending over, behind her to left a maid standing holding a garment, by Edgar Degas

There is a meditative quality to any number of exhibits here, a reflection of Degas’ own cerebral approach. Dancers in the Wings (1900–5), is a moment frozen in time. The viewer’s attention is drawn both to the dancers’ temporary stillness and the taut alertness reflected in their faces.

Degas’ landscape paintings, the least well-known among his output, depict a world in which everything is similarly still: unlike most landscape views by Impressionist artists, there is no sense of flickering light, of movement of light, shadow or wind across skies, water or fields.

A chalk copy of Francesco Francia’s The Virgin and Child with Two Saints of about 1510, undertaken early in Degas’ career, is another frozen vignette. Instead, it is his sculptures of dancers that thrill with a tingling sense of animation oh-so fleetingly suspended.

Despite the richness and breadth of material on show in Cambridge, a handful of images linger in the mind. Degas repeatedly depicted women who are apparently unaware of the artist’s scrutiny. The museum’s own enigmatic At the Café, painted in the mid 1870s, and three pastels from the collection of Denver Art Museum – The Dance Examination (1880), Woman Scratching her Back (1881) and Three Women at the Races (about 1885) – present an assortment of women entirely oblivious to external considerations.

Degas - Three Women at the Races (1885)

Degas – Three Women at the Races (1885)

Each is an image of absorption. A determined stoutness notwithstanding, the nude figure in Woman Scratching her Back is tangibly vulnerable: here is a snapshot of nakedness stripped of all eroticism. More than her curled fingers, the soft sag of her breast and roll of tummy, it is her down-turned face that ultimately holds us. Her thoughts remain forever elusive, like the itch she seeks to lessen.

This same sense of something unexplained being captured is what gives the virtually monochrome scene of two women at a table, At the Café, such impact. The subject of their conversation is as hard to fathom as that of the trio who comprise Three Women at the Races. We see none of their faces full on; indeed, the angular geometry of their poses is what links these women to Degas’ dancers – in each case, a passing physical mannerism has been committed to canvas for perpetuity.

A Degas landscape: 'Italian Landscape seen through an Arch'

A Degas landscape: ‘Italian Landscape seen through an Arch’

There is something frieze-like in the composition of the three female race-goers, all dressed in brown. Like an everyday The Three Graces, they are unaware of, and unconcerned by, the immortality the artist bestows upon them. The ballerinas in The Dance Examination betray the same ignorance of observation.

‘Nothing should be left to chance,’ Degas wrote of his art. Yet for all his meticulous reflecting on his subjects, his is a powerfully lively vision.