July 2016

Arts & Letters

Everything else was sacrificed

By Sebastian Smee
Puzzling out the singular Degas at the National Gallery of Victoria

Whether it was more difficult to be friends with Edgar Degas or simply to be him is impossible to say. But isn’t it often like that with brilliant, prickly people? There is so much static around them that we struggle to see the doubt, the fear, their yearning to make contact. All we can see, at a baffled distance, is intolerable brilliance.

With the possible exception of the ferociously jealous Michelangelo, there was never an artist more intolerably brilliant than Degas. He was one of the most technically astounding, innovative artists of the 19th century – or, really, of any century. Next year will mark 100 years since his death at the age of 83. The National Gallery of Victoria is getting in early with the first full-blown Degas retrospective anywhere in the world in more than 20 years. Organised by the artist’s biographer Henri Loyrette, a former director of both the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay, Degas: A new vision (until 18 September) is, on paper, an exhibition as good as any that has come to Australia in the 21st century.

Degas was the finest draughtsman of his generation, and a superb, instinctive colourist, too. His peers were intimidated by his talent. How could they not be? But Degas, too, felt his gift as a kind of burden. What was he supposed to do with it? His protracted apprenticeship suggests that, for the longest time, he hardly knew.

As a young man, Degas had toyed with the idea of becoming a monk. He chose art, but never entirely abandoned the monastic mindset. He treated art as a calling, sufficient unto itself – and a form of defence against the outside world. Like any sincere spiritual striver, he not only expected difficulty, he cultivated it. “This Degas has his nose in the air,” remarked one contemporary, “the nose of a searcher.”

You can see the brilliance, but also the struggle – Degas’ inability to decide between one thing and another – in the show’s key early works: Young Spartan Girls Challenging Boys (a large-scale sketch made prior to the better-known version in London’s National Gallery) and The Bellelli Family. Both set pieces he reworked repeatedly as his ideas changed over a decade or more.

Degas’ early self-portraits, from which he gazes out at us with doleful eyes and hooded lids, could very easily be portraits of a novice in a religious order. He was a lifelong bachelor. “The most beautiful things in art,” he once said, “come from renunciation.” His brother René sensed a kind of genius in him. “What is fermenting in that head,” René wrote in a letter to relatives, “is frightening.”


Before Degas hit his stride, his talents appeared both of and not quite of their time. It was as if they were the component parts of a newfangled machine – a kind of human camera – that were somehow trapped in a slow-moving glacier. In this case, the glacier was neoclassicism. It was Degas’ exposure to Delacroix’s Romanticism and Courbet’s Realism in the late 1850s, and, most importantly, his friendship with the dashing, debonair Edouard Manet, in the 1860s, that melted the ice.

From then on, Degas didn’t stop innovating. His art, in the late 1860s and throughout the ’70s, was unprecedented in its treatment of social relations, urban psychology and various modes of spectacle (rehearsal, performance and reception), beginning with music recitals and the racetrack, then moving on to cafe concerts, circuses and, of course, the ballet.

Degas eventually turned away from the social melee. As his eyesight slowly deteriorated from retinal disease, his anxieties were amplified by isolation. But his devotion to his calling only increased. Retreating from his earlier fascination with people as unique psychological entities immersed in social space, he turned instead to a private vision of the human (and particularly the female) animal – intimate, alone, attendant upon itself. His late bathers (faceless women combing their hair, getting in and out of the tub, drying their bodies) and late dancers (clumps of long-limbed girls in tutus seated gauchely on benches, tying slippers, stretching legs, waiting in wings) amount to a kind of long and death-haunted monologue – obsessive, ravished, unprecedented.


It was all an extraordinary performance. But if Degas was the most brilliant of late-19th-century artists, he was also the most baffling. The same questions continually arise in front of his work: Was he of his time, ahead of it or defiantly behind it? Did he love women or hate them? Was there human warmth in his vision, or was his eye cold and scientific? Did his obsessive tendencies, rapier wit and bravura touch take him, and us, to the heart of things, or was there something weirdly compulsive and, finally, superficial about it all?

Degas’ art can seem so impersonal, so bracingly aloof, that it feels like an impertinence to dwell on his character. And yet during his lifetime his persona was already legendary. Mary Cassatt, the American artist whose friendship Degas valued, lamented the fading of his “beautiful intelligence” as he aged. She was by no means alone in finding it beautiful.

Degas’ verbal sallies, like his pictures, were witty, but not cheaply so. They carried hard truths as a boat carries ballast. He could be cruel, but – unlike, for instance, Oscar Wilde – he was rarely catty. Acutely aware of his own shortcomings, he was preternaturally alert to weaknesses in others and prepared in advance to exploit them. When Wilde asked him, “You know how well known you are in Britain?” – a question just shy of a compliment – Degas picked up precisely on what had been withheld, and turned it back on Wilde: “Fortunately,” he said, “less so than you.”

Suzanne Valadon, a younger protégé of Degas, noted that their short-legged colleague Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec “dresses in your clothes”; his art, she meant, was too visibly influenced by Degas. Degas replied with virtuosic cruelty: “But adjusting them to his size.”

Similarly, when the painter Henri Michel-Lévy sold a work Degas had given him in a friendly exchange, Degas sent him a brutal note: “You have done a despicable thing,” he wrote, “you knew very well I couldn’t sell your portrait.”

All this – and there is an almost limitless fund of comparable anecdotes – has added to the strange, cracked lustre of Degas’ reputation. “Oh, my dear, he is dreadful,” said Cassatt (who knew how to handle herself) when the collector Louisine Havemeyer asked what Degas was like. “He dissolves your willpower.”

And yet there are as many anecdotes demonstrating how sweet, generous and supportive of fellow artists he could be. In a letter to a friend whose wife had been ill, Degas expressed profound regret at not having earlier enquired after her health. The particular phrase he used – “That’s the behaviour of someone who wants to finish up and die all alone, without any happiness” – was so self-aware, and so dismayingly prescient, that Loyrette used it as the title of a chapter in his biography.

Before Degas became a recluse, the writer Paul Valéry, another friend, saw him on Friday evenings, when friends gathered at the home of Henri Rouart. Degas, he observed, was “faithful, sparkling, unbearable”. Faithful, one wonders, to what? Above all, it seems, to his calling, to art – the process and pursuit to which everything else was sacrificed. He wanted, he said, to be “illustrious and unknown”.

He got what he wanted, more or less. But what did it cost him?

It is striking to find evidence of how fragile he was. Degas’ journals are laced with self-lacerating comments. He doubted his own worth – not so much as an artist, but as a human being. “I felt myself so badly formed, so badly equipped, so weak,” he wrote to a fellow artist, Evariste de Valernes, looking back to their earlier friendship, “whereas it seemed to me that my calculations on art were so right. I brooded against the whole world and against myself.”

He was prone, like so many artists, to melancholy. The early self-portraits make this obvious enough. (He cut self-portraits from his repertoire in the 1860s). In 1884, at the age of 50, Degas wrote to another, younger painter, Henry Lerolle, complaining of feeling “blocked, impotent” and having “lost the thread of things”. He added that Lerolle, too, would come to “know similar moments when a door shuts inside you and not only on your friends. You suppress everything around you, and once all alone you finally kill yourself, out of disgust.”

Degas seemed to enter friendships expecting them to end badly, probably in betrayal. And so he guarded against the eventuality, sometimes sabotaging them (consciously or otherwise) in advance. When he broke with Manet, over a portrait he had painted of Manet listening to his wife, Suzanne, at the piano, Manet was the guilty party: he had taken a knife to the painting, slicing right through the face of Suzanne. But you can be sure something drove the congenial Manet to such an extreme action.

Part of the problem was that Degas had complicated feelings about marriage. He was convinced that married life was incompatible with a serious artistic calling. He may have felt that Manet, whose marriage to Suzanne was itself unusually complicated, was putting his talent in jeopardy. About his own choice to remain a bachelor, Degas explained, “I would have been in mortal misery all my life for fear my wife might say, ‘That’s a pretty little thing,’ after I had finished a picture.” Among creative contemporaries, Degas was hardly alone in holding such beliefs. But he seemed unable to conceal his disapproval from his married artist friends.

Needless to say, he was partly jealous. “Couldn’t I find a good little wife,” he had earlier written in his diary, “simple and quiet, who understands my oddities of mind, and with whom I might spend a modest working life! Isn’t that a lovely dream?”

The portrait of Victoria Dubourg in the NGV show is interesting in this regard. Dubourg was an artist, and Degas depicted her as such: note her businesslike pose, plain brown dress, and raw, reddened hands. But the empty seat alongside her seems to hint at a secret Degas had only recently discovered: she was engaged to one of Manet’s friends, the painter Henri Fantin-Latour. “Ah well,” you can almost hear him sighing. “More waste.” His lasting respect for Cassatt came partly from her refusal to marry. To him, it indicated her wholehearted commitment to art.

Degas’ preoccupation with marital relations turned into an obsession towards the end of the 1860s. His masterly portrait of the Bellelli family (which he submitted to the Salon in 1867 but finished earlier) is a description of two children trying to ignore the fact that their father is a brute whom their mother (Degas’ aunt) detests. Degas was living with the Bellellis in Italy when he began the work, and his aunt, Laura, confided in him. His own mother had died when he was 13. This was his first intimate exposure, as an adult, to an actual marriage. It was a kind of hell.

Another marriage portrait of the mid 1860s – the painting of Degas’ sister Thérèse Morbilli and her husband Edmondo – is a depiction of shared, but perhaps unevenly shared, grief: Thérèse had recently lost a child in pregnancy.

And then there was Degas’ great attempt at representing a fictional marriage. Just prior to his ill-fated 1868 picture of Manet and Suzanne, Degas painted Interior. The work used to be known as The Rape. Inspired, at least in part, by the breakdown in marital relations described by Emile Zola in his sensational novel Thérèse Raquin, Degas painted a half-undressed woman slumped in a chair, her pose conveying shame or distress. A man stands in front of the closed door, casting a terrifying shadow behind him. We are left to wonder whether something terrible has just happened or whether it is about to happen. It is one or the other. There is no escaping it.


Like a young priest whose belief is challenged by persistent doubts, Degas was a modernist who embraced transience, movement and scientific objectivity but believed in the modern movement only up to a point. He had spent most of his apprenticeship under the spell of the ancients and the masters of the early Renaissance. That spell was never completely broken.

He spent much of the 1870s making what one critic of the time described as “so many little masterpieces of clever and accurate satire”. The pictures the critic had in mind were too cool and aloof to be satire. But they were witty. They described apparently random but suggestive encounters on the street, in milliners’ shops or in performance halls.

Their creator delighted in juxtapositions of dancers or jockeys in different poses and sometimes almost in different time signatures. He showed working women yawning, scratching themselves or straining to lift heavy bundles. He showed upper-class people in decorous interiors with vigilant, unyielding expressions, like hunted animals.

But by the mid 1880s Degas was renewing his attraction to classicism. He savoured, once more, its appeal to timeless values, its claim to permanence. He simplified his technique, muted his colours and returned to the fundamentals of his early training. “[Fellow painters] are all exploiting the possibilities of colour,” he said. “And I am always begging them to exploit the possibilities of drawing. It is the richer field.”

He was obsessed with technical problems. In Degas’ final years, Ambroise Vollard saw him put a wax sculpture of a dancer through 20 different transformations before announcing that he was almost ready to cast it. Instead, however, he went on to smash the statuette down into a ball of wax. “You think above all of what it was worth, Vollard,” he explained to the appalled dealer, “but if you had given me a hatful of diamonds my happiness would not have equalled that which I derived from demolishing [the figure] for the pleasure of starting over.”

As James Fenton reported in a superb essay, ‘Degas in the Evening’, in 1907 the diplomat and art patron Harry Graf Kessler dined with Degas at Vollard’s in Paris. By this time the old artist was living with his housekeeper Zoé on three floors of a house in the rue Victor-Massé. Zoé was under strict instructions not to dust the studio on the fourth floor. There, an endless succession of models disrobed for Degas every day in the dark.

Degas had lost most of his friends by then. The Dreyfus Affair, which shattered close relationships all over France, had brought out an ugly anti-Semitic streak in him. Kessler came away from the dinner that night convinced he had met “a fanatical, maniacal fool”.

He was surely right. But he was judging a very unusual man – a man who had all but arranged things so that his dire early predictions for himself would come true. They had.

Amazingly, the art produced by this lonely recluse was every bit as powerful as the art he had made in his prime. In many cases it was more so. And although the man grew ever more fanatical, nationalistic, anti-Semitic and isolated, the art, for as long as he could make it, remained excruciatingly tender, intimate and questing, as if it were made by a blind man fumbling in the dark to find out, once and for all, what it was he’d been trying to touch all along.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is the art critic for the Boston Globe and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. His latest book is The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art.

@SebastianSmee

Edgar Degas, Family Portrait also called The Bellelli Family 1858–67, oil on canvas © Musée d'Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt 

July 2016

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