by Roderick Conway Morris

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Musée d'Orsay, Paris
The Bellelli Family by Edgar Degas, 1858-67

From the Old Masters, Degas's new themes

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 8 January 2005


Edgar Degas was a contradictory figure. He was at once the most experimental and most traditional of the major artists of his era, and despite his association with the group, the least impressionist of the Impressionists.

The artist exhibited at all but one of the eight Impressionist Exhibitions from 1874 to 1886, but only showed much interest in landscape at the beginning and the end of his career. His subject matter was overwhelmingly the human figure, and the horse, that most revered of animals in ancient classical art.

Degas came from a cultivated haute-bourgeoisie banking background, but while the humbly born Renoir chased commissions for society portraits, when it came to portraiture, of which Degas was a past master, he painted only - and only occasionally - family and friends. He started out with ambitions to paint grand historical themes, and ended up immortalizing working-class girls and women, prostitutes and domestic drudges. Who else could have found so much poetry in a household servant simply doing the ironing?

In contrast to the general Impressionist enterprise of trying to catch the fleeting, transient moment, Degas famously said of his work: 'No art was ever less spontaneous than mine; what I do is the result of reflection and the study of Old Masters.'

Degas's most intense period of study of Old Masters was the three years he spent in Italy in his early twenties, from 1856 to 1859. He had family connections in Naples and Florence, but spent about half his time in Rome. Almost all the large body of paintings and drawings - many of them copies of Italian works that Degas took back to France - remained in his Paris studio until his death in 1917, and he constantly referred to them for inspiration.

Some of these pieces have been brought back to Rome along with a wide range of works from every stage of his career for 'Degas: Classical and Modern,' a rewarding exhibition of more than 170 paintings, sculptures, works on paper and photographs from collections around the world. Curated by Maria Teresa Benedetti, it highlights the unique manner in which Degas acted as a bridge between the old and the new. The show continues at the Complesso del Vittoriano until Feb. 1.

Degas's love of art was nurtured by his Italian-speaking father, who seems to have been more than happy with his son's aspirations to become an artist rather than take his place in the family bank. Degas attended the Ecole des Beaux Arts for a year, but also studied under Louis Lamothe, a former student of Ingres, who gave him a solid grounding in drawing and helped instill in him a passion for Italian art.

Degas was a lifelong admirer of Ingres - he eventually came to own 20 of his paintings and 80 drawings. His desire to follow in the footsteps of the great man, who had spent 20 years in Rome, six of them as the director of the French Academy there, no doubt hastened his departure for Italy.

The rapidity with which Degas developed once there is evident from his early works. By the time he returned to Paris, he had executed his first masterpiece: 'The Bellelli Family.' This group portrait of his father's sister, Baronessa Bellelli, her daughters and husband (they were Neapolitan but then living in exile in Florence) reveals extraordinary technical competence, but also Degas's ability to absorb compositional elements from the art he had seen in Italy into his own contemporary vision.

The artist, for example, places the husband in front of the fireplace, with his back to the viewer, so his face is seen only in profile, like an onlooker in an Italian Renaissance painting.

Still planning to become a history painter, Degas exhibited at the Salon from 1865 to 1870, but made little impact, even with the Bellelli portrait. Meanwhile, he had met Manet by chance at the Louvre, become friends with him and through him had been introduced to the nascent Impressionist group. This encounter encouraged Degas to jettison the idea of history painting. He resolved to devote his classical training and skills to very different forms of art.

During this period he became increasingly fascinated by dancers and horses - the former were to become the subject of nearly half of his output.

Degas's interest in both was strongly influenced by his devotion to ancient art, but in his characteristic fashion of freely combining the classical and modern, his depiction of both ballerina and beast was in due course influenced by the English photographer Eadweard Muybridge's cinema-like sequences of the human and animal bodies in motion. From the inspiration he found in Greek sculpture, Degas said that 'almost all ancient statues represent the balance and movement of rhythmical dance.'

In his striving to catch the ever-changing physical configurations of dancers and horses, in action and at rest, he began to make wax models, purely for his own use in the studio.

None of these were reproduced in metal until after his death. When they were cast in bronze in limited editions from 1919 to 1932, they posthumously established Degas as one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century. (Only three museums have complete sets of these: The Orsay in Paris, the Metropolitan in New York and the Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo in Brazil, the latter having generously loaned its series to this show.)

During Degas's lifetime, only one of his sculptures, 'Little Dancer Aged 14' was ever exhibited publicly, in 1881 at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition. With its muslin tutu, wig of human hair and real ribbons, it caused a sensation. Reviewing the exhibition, the novelist Huysmans declared it 'the only real attempt at modernity in sculpture that I know.'

But even this did not encourage Degas to exhibit his sculptures again, and they remained essentially tools for the creation of his other work in other media.

Indeed, a story related by the art dealer Ambroise Vollard reveals that only a tiny fraction of Degas's sculptures have in fact come down to us. One day, having worked up one of his ballerinas in wax, after a score of versions, Degas informed the dealer that he was more or less satisfied with it, and that after one or two final touches it should be ready to go off to the foundry to be cast the next day. But when Vollard returned the following morning, he found that the artist had reduced it to a pile of wax again.

In response to Vollard's astonishment, Degas merely said: 'You are above all thinking of its value, but even if you were to give me a fistful of diamonds, my happiness could never equal the pleasure I had in destroying it, precisely to have the joy of beginning all over again.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023