To mark the centenary of the death of Edgar Degas, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has staged a celebration of his diverse body of work
Degas: a passion for perfection
Even in the final years of his life, while plagued with dark thoughts and worsening eyesight, Edgar Degas never gave up on art. If anything, it kept him going. The prospect of embarking on a new creative endeavour fuelled and fired him. “I still dream of projects,” he told a close friend. “In this way, one continues to the last day figuring things out.”
Throughout his life, Degas “figured things out” by constantly reinventing himself and experimenting with form and technique. Early in his career, he immersed himself in historical painting, then moved on to depicting scenes of contemporary Parisian society. Later, he became famous as “the painter of dancers”. In the 1890s, he switched to landscapes and, after that, three-dimensional work.
At every stage, and with every composition, Degas spent time and effort revising and reworking, often producing multiple iterations of a theme, a subject, or even an individual pose. There was always room for improvement and a desire to fine-tune or rip up and start again. This was a man who said he wished he had the financial means to buy back all of his early work so as to “put his foot through it”.
Degas died 100 years ago at the age of 83. To mark the centenary of his death, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has staged a major exhibition that showcases the artist’s diverse range of work, not to mention his diligence, commitment and relentless creativity. Fittingly entitled A Passion for Perfection, the exhibition displays paintings, sketches, etchings, sculpture, counterproofs and monotypes – or, as Degas called them, “drawings made with greasy ink and printed”. Some are expertly “finished”, others expertly conceived, but all are the result of dedicated study, rigorous craft and bravura application.
Each section of the exhibition covers a period in Degas’s varied career. Copying and Learning groups his early work, and it is astonishing to discover how much of it was produced with only minimal formal training. Among Degas’s reproductions of paintings and antiquities by old masters, is a striking copy of a Greek oenochoe, or jug, in the shape of a man’s head. A graphite self-portrait, drawn when Degas was just 21, shows an assured young man, one who would hone his skills and mature into an accomplished draughtsman.
One mesmerising section focuses on the snapshots of urban Paris life that he produced in the 1870s. Many of the paintings here feature women either absorbed in intimate conversation or lost in introspective thought. In Three Women at the Races, a well-dressed trio talk and gesture with their backs to us. The effect is immediate: we are left out and we want in. The monochromatic Lady with a Parasol shows another woman turned away, and her shadowed profile and downward inclined head renders her aloof, opaque and unknowable.
The most prominent paintings in this section are those that take the viewer into cafes. In Degas’s hands, the coffee shop is either a calm retreat or a hub of vitality. In At the Café, which Degas worked on from 1875 to 1877, two anonymous women sit at a table, and if there was previously an amicable tête-à-tête, it appears to have faltered or stalled. One seems troubled, even traumatised; the other looks on helplessly. The latter has clear outlines; the former has blurred hands and a grey face. Their inscrutability – who are they? Why are they physically together yet emotionally apart? – becomes intriguing, and the more we stare at them, the more we want to learn.
However, Degas doesn’t make it easy for us. “What’s underneath is no one’s business,” he once said. “Works of art must be left with some mystery about them.” Jane Munro, curator of the exhibition and editor of the accompanying catalogue, explains that the difficulty in deciphering At the Café stems from the fact that Degas left it unfinished. “The background setting is indicated only summarily in a series of inchoate brushstrokes, while the women’s partly concealed expressions are barely legible, hard to define: we must gauge what we can from their contained gestures, the turn of their heads and apparent direction of their gaze.”
Another painting of a woman seated at a table seems at first glance to be more straightforward. In Madame de Rutté, we have a woman with an identity and, with the exception of her hazy hands, semi-distinct features. But as we contemplate Elise de Rutté, we gradually find ourselves forming more than one opinion of her.
“Elise appears retiring,” notes Munro, “her petite frame and neat oval face vying for compositional space with the vase of flowers on her right – but also forthright and alert, as her jet-black eyes solemnly meet the painter’s gaze.” The table acts as a buffer, creating an almost unbridgeable distance between sitter and viewer and “leaving Mme de Rutté’s emotions veiled, her inner life impenetrable”.
Degas continued to explore the female form and female behaviour in his paintings and pastels. He swapped cafes for salles de bain (bathrooms) and dance studios, and portrayed women at work, at play and in private. The exhibition chronicles Degas’s nude works, from his early classical studies in the 1850s to his more interesting and less traditional “toilette subjects” in the last decades of the century. When originally exhibited, some contemporary critics were appalled. According to Munro, their objections arose from Degas’s “dispassionate and unidealised representation of women shown in poses that were not only unflattering, but positively animalistic”. Whether these are candid glimpses of ordinary people carrying out natural functions behind closed doors or crudely voyeuristic violations of privacy, is in the eye of the beholder.
Less controversial is the substantial section dedicated to dancers, particularly ballerinas. Here we see dancers performing, executing graceful moves or postures. The pastel from the 1890s, Female Dancers in Violet Skirts, their Arms Raised, is a large and commanding focal point. But Degas also captured off-duty dancers, either waiting or resting.
The early 20th-century pastel, Dancers in the Wings, is a messier, more urgent composition, suggesting perhaps that the three ballerinas with their hands on their hips are anxious to get on stage. The exquisite Dance Examination, which captures a young dancer adjusting her stockings, is the best of several pieces that underscore Degas’s fascination for all aspects and rituals of the dancer’s routine.
The section Nature and Landscape takes us from people to place, and a subject Degas routinely disdained early on in his career, but later came to appreciate. The most arresting is the series of vividly coloured pastel-over-monotype landscapes that he made in the 1890s. Vesuvius is a vision of belching smoke and burning lava. Landscape plays a trick on the eye, transforming the rocks and hills of a Burgundy vista into the curves and contours of the female body.
In and around these sections lurk some unexpected pleasures. Along with posthumous bronze casts of horses, nudes and dancers, we see some incredibly rare sculptures in plaster and wax. Several exhibits are on public display for the first time, including a group of paintings and drawings bought by the economist John Maynard Keynes in 1918 and 1919. There is also a selection of works by artists who influenced Degas, from Renaissance draughtsmen to Eugène Delacroix and role model Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Complementing this is a final section called After Degas, which explores the artist’s legacy by looking at how the likes of Picasso, Henry Moore and David Hockney were inspired by him.
“No matter how the wind shifts,” John Updike wrote, “Degas’s ship sails on.” A hundred years after his death and it continues to do so, with new generations of artists still following faithfully in its wake. This outstanding exhibition is a worthy tribute to a singular and hugely influential talent.
Degas: A Passion for Perfection is on at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge until January 14. For more information, visit www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk
Degas: A Passion for Perfection edited by Jane Munro, published by Yale University Press, is out now