In Focus: The Degas painting full of life, movement and ‘orgies of colour’

Lilias Wigan takes a closer look at one of the key work's at the Degas exhibition at the National Gallery in London.

Edouard Degas - The Red Ballet Skirts, about 1895-1900

The Red Ballet Skirts by Edgar Hilaire Germain Degas (1834 – 1919, French). Created circa 1895-1900, pastel on paper. Courtesy of The Burrell Collection, Glasgow © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell, on the ground floor of London’s National Gallery, focuses on works from the collection of Sir William Burrell, a Scottish shipping magnate born in 1861 who made his fortune in Glasgow in the early twentieth century.

In 1944, 14 years before his death, Burrell bestowed his vast collection of nearly 9,000 artworks to the nation. That bequest included 23 pictures by the French artist Edgar Degas (1834-1917), which form the core of this exhibition. It’s the largest group of Burrell’s collection ever to be shown outside Scotland.

Although a founding member of the Impressionist movement, Degas had his own distinct approach. He relentlessly experimented with materials, particularly with coloured pastels — powdered pigments mixed with chalk and gum compressed into sticks — and made unprecedented use of the newly developed synthetic dyes to push the boundaries of the medium.

His desire to seek a new visual language for the ‘restless movement and ephemeral nature of modern life’ is evident in his obsessive attitude towards subjects such as dancers, horse-racing and women bathing.

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Degas wanted to capture the reality of Paris and, by the mid 1860s, was concentrating solely on contemporary subjects. The ballet, in particular, enthralled him and he attended as many as fifty-four performances in one year.

Edgar Degas - The Dance Examination (1880)

Edgar Degas – The Dance Examination (1880). Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas – The Burrell Collection, Glasgow © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

The Paris Opera was near his studio and had its own corps de ballet. He was most interested in recording the movements of dancers in the stage wings and in rehearsals, where he could capture them in spontaneous poses between performance and rest.

From the late 1880s, partly inspired by the colour and expressive forms of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), whom he greatly admired, his style became more abstract—his dancers grew more sculptural and his colours more vibrant. He recorded them with such compulsion that works were often left unfinished as he moved excitedly on to the next picture.

The Red Ballet Skirts (c.1890) encapsulates Degas’ later style. He adopts a system of densely built layers and cross hatching, which he referred to as ‘orgies of colour’.

Striking contrasts of red, blue and green are hemmed in by bold outlines, adding distinct definition to the figures. The dancers are lit atmospherically from above and the composition is cropped — an unorthodox treatment of space that strengthens the intimacy of the scene and amplifies the sense of fleeting movement.

Edgar Degas exhibition at the National Gallery in London. The Burrell Collection, Glasgow © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

The Burrell Collection, Glasgow © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Marking the centenary of Degas’ death, this exhibition offers a chance to see an impressive collection of his pastels away from their permanent home (which is currently undergoing an extensive restoration) and validates the artist as a great advocate of the versatility of the medium.

His observations of modern Parisian life and his skill in depicting its atmosphere set him apart from his Impressionist contemporaries.

Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell is at the National Gallery in London until 7th May, 2018.

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