Edgar Ilère Germain Degas (1834-1917)
Edgar-Germain-Hilaire de Ga or Edgar Degas, as the whole world knows him, was born in Paris into a wealthy aristocratic family. The childhood of the future artist was held in an atmosphere of love and tranquility. From an early age, Edgar showed love and ability to draw, and despite the fact that his father wanted him to become a lawyer, nothing could stop the young man from going to study the art of painting. The mentor of young Degas at the Paris School of Fine Arts was the then-famous artist Lamot. True, after only a year of schooling, in 1856 Degas unexpectedly leaves Paris for everyone and leaves for almost two years to live in Italy.
The formal reason for the trip was the desire to see his paternal relatives. But it was not they who attracted him to Italy, but the opportunity to get in touch with the outstanding works of art of the great artists of the Renaissance.
The artist traveled a lot, he visited all the main cultural centers of the country – Florence, Rome and Naples. In each city, he studied with great attention the work of the great painters of the past. The Degas were most impressed by the canvases of Paolo Veronese and Andrea Mantegna, which became his ideal.
The first creative experiments
Two years later, the young artist meets Gustave Moreau, who later became for him not only a comrade, but also a mentor. Moreau passionately studied painting, giving it all his time. Trying to understand the essence of harmony, he was passionately interested in the works of Titian, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Caravaggio and Veronese, trying to feel their system of creating color. Moreau preferred to perform his own colorful compositions in watercolors or pastels. Young Degas was so struck by the work of an older comrade that he also turned his attention to these techniques. It should be noted that Moreau had a strong influence on the young artist, but if Gustave assigned the main place to color, then Edgar Degas (especially at the beginning of his work) asserted the primacy of the drawing, being sure that it was a “more fruitful field of activity”.
It is in Italy that the painter begins the search for his own individual means of artistic expression. As the basis of his own style, Degas chooses the constructive construction of the form, through its realistic interpretation. Therefore, the artist’s early works are distinguished by a sharp and accurate pattern.
Many of Degas’ works related to this period are endowed with special expressiveness arising from the exact reproduction of reality. This is clearly shown by his painting "Roman Beggar" (1857, Art Museum, Birmingham). The image of the heroine herself on this canvas is given an incredibly realistic, and even tough interpretation, while the space around her is depicted quite arbitrarily. A tired old woman sits on the threshold of the old house, lost in thought, and peers into the distance with some curiosity. Not only her well-worn clothes, but also seemingly carelessly placed objects in the foreground of the picture tells about the heroine’s difficult life: a piece of bread and an old pot with half-eaten food with a chipped edge. Degas performed the compositional construction of the canvas according to the principles of the old masters, but as his model he chose not a sophisticated beautiful lady, but a simple woman whose image is not at all idealized.
Despite the fact that the picture is characterized by a certain graphic structure of the composition, it has a subtle color modeling and tonal elaboration verified in the most accurate way. In fact, with just four colors, the artist managed to create a surprisingly harmonious and expressive type of Italian beggar.
A lot of attention in the work is given to the ornament, as if “revitalizing” the entire surrounding space. In this painting, Degas managed to very skillfully solve the fundamental artistic problem that worried the painter during his studies in the class of Louis Lamot – the ratio of the figure of the hero and the surrounding space.
In the spring of 1859, Edgar Degas returned to Paris. Having lived a little in the parental home, the artist moves to a large workshop located in the 9th arrondissement on the Rue de Laval. There he begins to create, turning first of all to a historical theme. Degas is trying to give her a new interpretation, not characteristic of the early works of this genre.
An example is the painting “Young Spartans Calling the Spartans to Compete” (1860, National Museum, London). Here Degas, following the classical canons of fine art, sought to renew them with lively and accurate observations from real life. The master completely ignored the conditional idealization of the antique plot, the characters he depicted are more like modern teenagers taken from Parisian streets. This is especially noticeable in some angular movements of the characters depicted by him, placed in a somewhat stylized landscape.
The figures of young people are placed parallel to the lower edge of the canvas in a single space of the first plan, which gives the scene great persuasiveness, without losing decorative rhythm. Static poses of young men speak about the influence of neoclassical art. The artist emphasizes the realism of the scene with the help of a subtle psychological interpretation of the faces of each character. At the same time, the main expressive means on the canvas, as in earlier works, is an elegant musical – plastic line. The color of the picture, built on a limited combination of colors, gives the canvas a sense of strict clarity and poise.
Creation of a peculiar portrait style
At the beginning of his career, Degas creates a lot of portraits. This was partly affected by the influence of the artist’s father, who believed that it was precisely the skillful possession of the portrait painter’s skills that could ensure the young man a comfortable life. On the first canvases in this genre, Degas mainly painted self-portraits and portraits of family members, but soon turned to the image of his friends. In these works, the characteristic features of the painter’s individual style were clearly manifested, which adhered to traditional compositional techniques, in which it is easy to find a connection with the works of old masters.
An example is the work of 1855 "Self-Portrait" (Museum d’Orsay, Paris) in which the artist used a dark background characteristic of the Spanish school of painting, represented by such great masters as Diego Velazquez and Francisco de Goya. In Self-Portrait, he appears before us in a natural pose, holding a charcoal pencil in his right hand – a symbol of his belonging to art. It should be noted that this work, like many other early portraits of Degas, is distinguished by the monochrome color scheme.
Gradually, his work becomes more saturated with light and color. In the painting Self-portrait with a Soft Hat (1857, Stirling Institute of the Arts and Frappsn Clark, William Sgown), the artist already refuses to use a neutral muted background. Although the background of the painting is dark blue, it is illuminated by the steady sunlight coming from the window left by the master outside the framework of his canvas. Degas portrays himself in a casual suit, his main expressive accessory is a red-orange scarf around his neck. This bright color spot plays the role of a tuning fork for the coloristic construction of the portrait.
Nevertheless, here, as on earlier canvases, for example, “Portrait of Rene de Ga” (1855, Smith Museum of Art College, Northhamton), a pronounced static posture remains. True, Degas quickly realized this flaw and began to experiment with movement and angles in his portraits, which as a result “revived” his works and gave them dynamism. It was thanks to the unusually sharp vision of nature and the new compositional construction of paintings that the painter brought into his canvases not only emotionality, but also a pronounced deep psychologism.
The real pinnacle of the early style of Edgar Degas, as a portrait painter, was the work “The Bellelli Family” (1858-1867, Museum d’Orsay, Paris). The models for this canvas were the uncle of the artist Gennaro, his wife Aaura, and their two daughters – Giovanna and Julia. The composition of the picture is built on the principle of a certain genre scene. In the center of the canvas is the figure of the Baroness, dressed in a mourning black dress devoid of accessories. The artist’s uncle, Gennaro, is pictured from the back; he sits in armchairs by the fireplace. The figures and faces of both spouses express their disinterest in what is happening around. Giovanna, standing next to her mother, on the contrary, carefully looks at the viewer. The younger Julia, comfortably settled in a chair, she, as if conducting a leisurely conversation, turned to her father.
The artist never dictated to his models what position they should be in. Unlike many painters of his time, Degas preferred to paint "portraits of people in typical natural poses for them, usually giving them absolute freedom, both in body position and in facial expression."
Despite the fact that the poses of all models are calm, the asymmetric arrangement of the figures creates a kind of unexpected sharpness in the composition. The color of the canvas is chosen very exquisite, a combination of blue, silver, black and white tones, build a perfect color system. True, even in spite of this, the scene that the artist showed could not be called idealized. Degas filled the family portrait with drama: he portrayed a couple, pretty tired of each other’s company. Their poses emphasize the difference in characters and emotional experiences of the spouses. It becomes clear to the viewer that children remain the only unit uniting them. This canvas, marked by deep psychologism, mastery in transmitting light and the accuracy of the drawing, is one of the best works in its genre created in the middle of the 19th century.
The individual style of the artist was constantly evolving, in his subsequent works the painter preferred to avoid stationarity in the composition and the frontal arrangement of the models by enhancing the dynamics of the composition. To this end, Degas quite often used the construction of the composition on the diagonal, shifts and unexpected angles, thanks to which he was able to achieve new, more expressive effects.
For example, a very bold compositional solution, chosen by Degas for the painting “A Woman Sitting by a Vase of Flowers” (1865, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), which at first glance makes a strange, disturbing impression. Most of the painting is occupied by a magnificent bouquet composed of chrysanthemums of different colors. The heroine sits next to a table on which there are flowers, but her face is slightly turned away from them, she looks away. It seems that the heroine fell into the image of a still life by accident. Nevertheless, such a solution does not worsen the psychological characteristics of the model, but, on the contrary, emphasizes and emphasizes its individuality. The woman’s distant, pensive face seemed torn by a haze of sad memories. The amazing flair with which the artist depicts every trait that conveys features of her character is striking. Studies of this picture, conducted in recent years, indicate that Margaret Claire Brunkan (who later became Baroness Valpinson) is depicted on the canvas.
When drawing portraits, Degas often included attributes that reveal the occupation or social status of the hero. A vivid example of such an interpretation of the image is the painting “Portrait of James Tissot” (1867, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), in which Degas, a French artist, is depicted in his workshop.
In 1869, the artist creates another of his masterpieces – a portrait of Mademoiselle Hortense Valpinson (Institute of Fine Arts, Minneapolis), in which the painter captured the nine-year-old daughter of his friend Paul Valpinson. The girl is depicted leaning on a table covered with a dark tablecloth with a colored embroidered pattern. At the opposite end of the table is a basket of unfinished crafts. Young Hortense looks carefully at the viewer, as if taken by surprise.
This compositional technique helped the artist emphasize the lively, direct nature of the child. The background of the picture, written in wide sonorous strokes, further enhances this impression. The color of the work is based on a combination of warm ocher-golden hues, as well as black and white tones, which gives the entire work a very major sound.
Another work, surprising in its expressive composition, is “Portrait of Viscount Lepik with his daughters” (alternative name “Concord Square”, 1876, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg). A dynamic composition resembles a photograph with its sharp cropping of all sides of the canvas, which is not characteristic of the painting of that time. The horizon line is greatly overestimated, which turns the Place de la Concorde, which is rapidly crossed by the Viscount Louis Napoleon Lepic, only into the background for the characters in the picture.
It was as if someone who had been hailed by the daughters of a nobleman, stopped, turned in the opposite direction with respect to the movement of his father. The canvas has an interesting flavor. While the main characters of the Degas painting are dressed in light costumes, almost merging with the background, the clothes of the other participants in the composition are made in dark, almost black colors. These “black” figures, located on the canvas with mathematical precision, create an amazing “musical” rhythm of the entire work.
Coming from a noble family and not feeling the need for money, Edgar Degas could afford not to fulfill the requirements of noble models, creating custom portraits. Among the posers there were many characters from high society, but never once did the artist begin to portray them in the radiant splendor of luxurious outfits. Regardless of the status of the heroes of his paintings, Degas always tried to convey as accurately as possible the characteristic features of each of them. Accustomed to flattery, secular lions and lionesses often left him, feeling offended.
Life experience and travel
An important event in the life of Edgar Degas was the acquaintance with Edward Manet, which happened in 1862. Soon, the artist began to regularly visit Cafe Gerbois – a popular meeting place for young artists. There they discussed the search for new subjects in art, original expressive means and their own vision of reality. Among the regulars of the cafe were such great artists as Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Auguste Renoir and many others.
Influenced by this community of impressionists, in the late 1860s Degas turned to the creation of large series – Laundresses, Horse Racing, Ballet Scenes, and Modistiki. All his paintings were distinguished by a very accurate disclosure of the depth and complexity of the inner world of their heroes. Unlike most of the impressionist artists, Degas never sought inspiration in nature, he perceived reality as a dynamic element, and it was this continuous movement that occupied the main place in his work. His ideal was the busy life of a modern city. Being very observant by nature, Degas, walking along the noisy streets of Paris, noticed all the characteristic expressive features and for a long time kept what he saw in his memory. Subsequently, conveying the rhythm of urban life, the artist created photographically accurate and impartial images.
Initial material well-being allowed Edgar Degas to spend all his time on creative experiments. He could afford to boldly discard all canons, all the hackneyed tricks of constructing the composition, in order to find his own unexpected point of view, a new vision, thanks to which one could achieve the impression of freshness and spontaneity of the work.
As a result of creative searches, the artist was able to achieve an accurate adjustment of the composition of paintings, in which there was nothing accidental and all the elements were designed to emphasize the general meaning of the plot. The painter himself characterized his work this way: "My work is the result of reflection, patient observation, inspiration, character and the study of great masters." Degas captured all his heroes in natural and laid-back poses, trying his best to convey their character and mood.
When, in 1870, the Franco-Prussian War broke out, the artist volunteered to join the infantry regiment. Suddenly, at the first shooting ranges, it became clear that his right eye is poorly seen. The doctors’ diagnosis was this: retinal detachment caused by diabetes. As it turned out later, this was only the beginning of Degas disease, which eventually brought him to almost complete blindness. Nevertheless, he was left in the ranks of the French army, transferring to the artillery regiment. In 1871, the war was already over, and Degas made a short trip to London, after which he went to his American relatives in New Orleans, where he spent the winter of 1872 – 1873.
At the beginning of his stay in the United States, Degas creates many sketches and paintings, including a number of portraits of his family members. But very soon he loses his fuse. The reason for this was his conclusion that “Paris art cannot be the same as Louisiana art without any distinction.Because otherwise it will only be an illustrated world. " From this moment on, the artist ceases to do sketches and sketches, which he previously created in huge numbers during his many wanderings.
Degas made sure that only prolonged observation of life in a particular country "can provide an opportunity to learn the customs of the people and feel their charm." Nevertheless, contrary to his own theses, the artist creates the painting "Office for the Sale of Cotton in New Orleans" (1873, Museum of Fine Arts, Poe). The multi-figure composition of the work is based on the contrast of contrasting colors – black and white, the alternation of which creates a clear rhythm of the entire canvas.
In the spring of 1873, Degas returned to Paris, where he soon awaited a series of losses and troubles. In less than a year, the artist’s father dies, leaving behind huge debts. As it turned out, the deceased was in complete disarray. The bank managed by Auguste de Ga, owed astronomical amounts to creditors. To preserve his family reputation, the artist paid part of his debts from funds inherited from him, but this was not enough. In order to make ends meet, the painter sells the family estate and a collection of paintings by great masters, collected by his father.
All this led to such a state of affairs that the painter for the first time in his life thought about selling his paintings. One of the effective ways to attract buyers, the artist considered the exhibition of impressionists, which he often helped organize. In the period from 1874 to 1886, eight such exhibitions were held, in seven of which Degas participated. It is worth noting that his works were successful and sold very well, unlike the works of other impressionists.
During the 1870s, Degas further refined his artistic style. The spatial construction of his work has gained unprecedented sharpness, even greater freedom and dynamism. The color in his paintings acquired an independent meaning, became very complex, as if filled with light.
Degas so simplified and cleaned his drawing that he could convey the game of the muscles of the human body in motion with the help of only one circuit. Gradually, his work acquired an increasingly sculptural character. He began to emphasize the contours of figures and objects with a thick carbon line, pink, purple and greenish shades began to prevail in the color of the paintings, which gave the work sonicity, and all details were minimized.
Degas practically stops painting in oil, pastel is his favorite material. The last portrait, created by the master, was the painting "Helene Roire in his father’s office" (1886, National Gallery, London), depicting the daughter of a friend of the artist Henri Rouen – Helen.
Since the mid-70s in the works of Degas, the influence of Japanese engraving, which had a great influence on the entire movement of the Impressionists, has been increasingly traced. The artist began to use many techniques of this art, for example, original spatial constructions, the use of unexpected angles and the frequent placement of secondary characters in the center of the composition.
Love of horse racing
One of the artist’s greatest passions was horses. Edgar Degas showed interest in these graceful animals during his stay in Italy. He was fascinated by the traditional Roman horse racing on Via del Corsa, during which he made many sketches. In France itself in the 1860s, both under the rule of Louis Philippe and Napoleon III, equestrian sport was also very popular. Moreover, Degas was interested not only in the natural plastic and grace of horses, he was more interested in professional gestures and movements of their riders.
Creating a series of works devoted to horse racing, Degas often found various unconventional compositional structures for his canvases. His favorite tricks were various spatial shifts, sharp edge trimming and various “sharp” angles. The essence of all the techniques was to create vibrant dynamic images that can convey a unique feeling of an ever-changing reality. An important place in these works is color. It was with the help of the color Degas that it was possible to give a motley mess of jockey figures to a specific organized form.
In 1860, the artist wrote one of his first paintings in a series devoted to horse racing. The canvas “Gentlemen at the races: before the start” (Fogg Museum of Art, Cambridge) perfectly characterizes the style and character of the artist, which has changed throughout his life. The fact is that Degas rewrites twenty years later his first version of this work, where the fuzzy blurry figures of the riders are depicted against a completely flat landscape. In this late canvas, the background of the painting was hills and suburban factories with chimneys emitting black smoke.
The 1862 work “Riders before the start” (Musee d’Orsay, Paris), very accurately and sincerely conveys the exciting emotions that people experience and the tension of the horses before the start. In the foreground of the picture, full of tension, inner focus and dynamism, are shown jockeys preparing for the start of the race. The middle plan is busy with a noisy secular society, eager for spectacles. The amazing authenticity with which the gestures and planting of jockeys, devoid of any poetry of images, is amazing. Thanks to this reception, the viewer is not surprised by the sharp fragmentation of the canvas, in which the edge of the picture cuts off half of the figure of one of the riders.
The Degas series, dedicated to horse racing, is full of beautiful works, solved with almost reporter accuracy. An example of such canvases is “Before the start” (1878, Museum of E. G. Bgorl, Zurich), “Horse racing in the province. Crew at the Race "(circa 1872, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)," Race Horse Riding "(1894, Collection at Webb, New York) and" Jockeys in Front of the Tribune "(1869-1872, Museum d’Orsay, Paris ) On the last canvas, Degas portrayed the moment preceding the race, when the public was only shown the horses participating in the races. The artist masterfully composes the picture, achieving the illusion of calm and poise, preserved by the heroes. The inner experiences are conveyed with the help of long shadows that delicately adorn the sand of race tracks. All the horses in the picture are almost static, with the exception of one.Degas set himself the task of reflecting the state of calm prevailing just before the start of the race. There are no passions and excitement characteristic of this event.
Somewhere in 1873, the painter temporarily moved away from the topic of horses and horse racing without any attention, returning to it only a few years later, when he commissioned singer Jean-Baptiste Fare to paint “Horse racing. Jockeys – amateurs ”(1876-1887, Museum d’Orsay, Paris). After that, Degas periodically wrote canvases dedicated to horse racing, until about the end of the 9s. One of the last works of this series was the painting “The Fallen Jockey” (1896-1898, the Museum of Art, Offlätsche Collection, Basel). The composition of the canvas is similar to the artist’s earlier work, it shows us a horse rushing through the meadow, behind which there remains an apparently dropped jockey dropped by it.
The expressiveness of the nightlife of Paris
The artist’s illness affected his lifestyle. Degas began to protect his eyes from bright sunlight, and generally tried, as rarely as possible, to be on the street in the daytime. Unlike the vast majority of impressionists, the painter practically did not work in the open air. Degas painted most of his paintings under gas lighting, for which he received the nickname "the first impressionist of the night." This could also be one of the reasons why the theme of Parisian cafes, cheap cafes, actresses, singers and “half-light” ladies was so attractive to him.
Degas created many works devoted to the topic of such institutions and their inhabitants, one of the most famous is the canvas “Absinthe” (or “Lovers of Absinthe”, 1875, Mray d’Orsay, Paris). It depicts the interior of the Nouvelle-Athenn establishment, popular in Parisian art circles. The composition of the picture is based on the principle of a simple genre scene from the daily life of the inhabitants of the cafe. Her characters – a man and a woman – seemingly just resting at the table after daily worries. But empty tables in the foreground give the impression of being squeezed and driven into a corner by two people, and also emphasize their emptiness and mutual indifference. This unpretentious storyline underscores the theme of Alien’s excitement of man from the world and his inevitable loneliness, which is the main idea of the whole work. The models for the artist were the engraver and artist Marcel Debuten and actress Helene Andre. Through color, the artist manages to give inner tension and drama to their figures, practically devoid of movement.
The subtle skill of the painter to convey the character of his models with the help of only one gesture was perfectly revealed in the canvases depicting the singer of various cafeshantans. A vivid example is the painting “Captain Ambassador” (1876, Museum of Fine Arts, Lyon), in which the singer’s gesture combines two parts of the composition: a performance on stage and an auditorium.
Concerning this work, the famous critic J. Riviera wrote: “How many female figures in the background, with their muslin dresses and fans, and spectators who, raising their heads and literally stretching their necks, enthusiastically watch provocative dances and scabbly written couplets! If I’m not mistaken, then this singer has a contralto thoroughly saturated with brandy… The unusual gesture of the singer, leaning towards the audience, certainly confirms the success of her performance. Never repeating herself as actors with memorized roles, she appeals to the audience, asks them, knowing in advance that they will answer exactly what she wants to hear, because it is she who controls the tyrant, whose vices appeases. ”
Written in 1878, the canvas “Singer from Cafesantan” (or “Singer with a Glove, ” Vogt Art Museum, Cambridge), is also a very vivid representative of this series. Ellis Degrange, who served as the model for this canvas, is actually not a singer at all, but a very famous pianist in Parisian circles who willingly agreed to pose for Degas. The figure of the pianist, very close to the viewer, is still not the compositional center of the canvas. This role is played by her hand, dressed in a black glove. To give the gesture an even greater sound, Degas portrayed it against a light background. The artist managed to very masterfully organize the space of the work. The sharp gesture of the singer’s hand, her open mouth and somewhat distorted facial features actually bring the image closer to the caricature. To mitigate this effect, the master introduced soft light colors into the coloring: soft pink highlights on the heroine’s dress and face, and a flower in her hair.
The series devoted to cafeshantans and their inhabitants turned out to be very bright and peculiar. All the works of the cycle are distinguished by a very bold compositional construction, which is aimed at revealing the main idea of the canvas. The radiance of color and light, in Degas paintings, transforms reality into a fantasy world filled with a special tart charm.
Edgar Degas’ second favorite theme was the fluid and dynamic element of dance. It is known for certain that for almost twenty years the artist regularly acquired a subscription to the Paris Opera. He immersed himself in the theme of ballet, attending theaters and dance classes. Watching the hard work of the ballerinas, the artist recreated the enchanting world of dance. He wrote many paintings dedicated to their rehearsals, during which each movement of the dancers was perfected, the performances in which they were presented to the audience in a festive sparkle of spotlights, and during rare moments of relaxation. Most of the work was done in pastel workshop Degas, where he invited his models. Only fifteen years later, the director of the Paris Opera allowed the artist to work directly behind the curtains of the theater.
One of the first works written by Degas in the theater was the painting “The Orchestra of the Opera” (circa 1870, Museum l’Orsay, Paris). It is a canvas of a small size, the composition of which is as if accidentally taken during the presentation of a photograph. The master invites the viewer to look at the stage from the side of the orchestra pit. The whole foreground is occupied by musicians dressed in black tailcoats. The central place among them belongs to the image of a friend of the painter Desiree Dio, who plays the bassoon. The canvas is arranged so that we can see only the lower part of the performance going on the stage. The first thing that attracts the viewer’s attention is the bright pink and blue tutus of dancers, and only after that the white spot of the musician’s shirt draws his eyes to the main character of the picture.
The artist devoted a huge number of his next works to the dancers. The earliest paintings in this series carry a large share of the allegedly photographic impassivity with which the master portrayed ballerinas.
In his canvas “Dance Class” (1871, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), the artist masterfully conveys the excitement of a young dancer before a crucial rehearsal. A young girl stands on the background of mirrors, which allows her figure slightly offset from the center to occupy the entire space of the class. Only on the left side of the picture was there a place for the black piano and the elderly accompanist sitting next to him, who was just getting ready to start playing a melody for the dance. The picture is filled with silence reigning in a spacious room. Dancers warm up before the rehearsal. All work is permeated with a clear and harmonious musical rhythm conveyed by the artist through color through the clear coloristic thoughtfulness of the canvas.
Several works of the series, among which was the canvas “Dance Class”, Degas presented to the public in 1874 at the exhibition of the Impressionists. After her, he gained fame as an “artist writing dancers. “
The painting “Dance Lesson” (1874, Museum d’Orsay, Paris), striking with convincing realistic interpretation of images, belongs to the same period. Degas depicted a fragment of a rehearsal, during which an elderly teacher, stopping the rehearsal, gives instructions and recommendations to his students. Light white figures of dancers occupy almost the entire space of a large hall, the naturalness of their poses and gestures gives the canvas convincingness. In this work, Degas captured the famous French choreographer Louis Merant, next to whom is one of the best dancers of the time, Josephine Gogelen.
The color of the picture plays a special role in it, built on a harmonious combination of gray, green, bluish-white and ocher shades, with numerous dark accents that bring clarity and clarity, forming a smooth linear rhythm, as if repeating the movements of the dance. The entire composition of the “Dance Lesson”, built on the principle of fragmentation, as it removes the action from the viewer, isolates it inside the illusory space created by the artist. However, in later works, the master intentionally brings graceful heroines closer to the edge of the canvas, and sometimes even cuts off the image of their figures, for example, in such works as “Dancers” (1883, Dallas Art Museum), or “Before the exam” (1880), Denver Art Museum).
Unlike other canvases, where the artist paid attention mainly to the transfer of lightness and grace of all the movements of his heroines, in the work “Before the Exam” Edgar Degas decided to pay attention to their emotional state. On the canvas we see young dancers who are preparing for a responsible performance. On the right side of the composition depicts a girl whose pose is relaxed. Her shoulders and head are lowered, as if she is praying before going to the examiners. The second heroine massages her leg, gracefully leaning forward. Behind the girls on the bench were two elderly ladies, who were having a quiet conversation. Here Degas set out to depict an important moment in the life of the ballerinas – the moment when they tune in to perform, right before they enter the stage, where they will shine in the luxurious spotlights.
The most famous work on the subject of dance is the painting “Blue Dancers” (circa 1898, the A. Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow), where the master was able to achieve special compositional and color expressiveness. In the work, the graceful heroines of which correct their costumes before the performance, the artist managed to use the artificial lighting effect so skillfully that the entire canvas turned out to be filled with radiance and sparkling threads of dance melody.
In the work of 1877, The Final Arabesque (Musee d’Orsay, Paris), similar intonations can be noted. The canvas is arranged in such a way as to give the viewer the opportunity to peek behind the curtains from above, to watch how the ballerinas are preparing for the upcoming appearance on the stage. The foreground of the painting is a figure of prima, depicted on the darkened background of an empty scene. The ramp lights illuminate her face and light yellow suit, likening the girl’s figure to a graceful flower.
Almost all works on the theater and dancers Degas performed in pastel technique. The master, who knew how to go beyond the usual stereotypes, and here developed his own unique style. His methods of applying the paint layer, with distinctive separate strokes, more like strokes, seemed to combine drawing and painting.
Aesthetics of hard work
Throughout his work, the artist was distinguished by a genuine interest in the characteristic features of the behavior of people belonging to different sectors of society. Degas has always been interested in the features of their plastics, specific gestures and movements, in a word, everything that he could transfer to the canvas. Throughout his life, the painter remained steadfastly addicted to certain topics that contributed to the expression of his creative interests.
Degas was very fond of everyday scenes in which the main characters were the saleswomen of haberdashery and hats, laundresses and ironers. In all the plots, the artist was attracted by characteristic poses and professional movements. Thanks to this, he was able to discover completely unexpected decorative effects associated with the rhythmic interaction of silhouettes and matching figures. Most of the paintings that make up this series, as a rule, were created outside the domestic environment, which helped Degas achieve a high level of social generalization.
For example, in the painting “Ironmaker” (circa 1869, New Pinakothek, Munich), the artist sought to convey the routine and monotony of the heroine’s daily work. The young girl depicted on the canvas holds the iron in his right hand, and moves the fabric with his left. To give greater dynamism, Degas made a double contour of the ironing skirt, emphasizing the efforts that she has to make. Immediately after returning from America, in 1873, Degas wrote another work under the same title, but with great expressiveness. On the new painting “Ironmaker” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), the main character stands in profile, her dark silhouette stands out sharply against the background of a light-flooded window. Through this contrast and excellent transmission of the woman’s professional movements, the artist was able to masterfully reproduce the atmosphere prevailing in Parisian laundries.
The next canvas of the cycle – “Two Ironworkers” (Musee d’Orsay, Paris), created much later, in 1884, is perhaps the most famous. The work is written with wide nerve strokes, perfectly conveying the fluctuation of air around working girls. The color scheme, based on a comparison of blue, brown-ocher, golden and white tones, is characterized by increased decorativeness, which distinguishes this work from the previous ones.
Degas was not the only outstanding Parisian artist who loved the theme of ironers and laundresses. His work on this subject was often compared with the canvases of Honore Daumier. The critic Armay Sylvester, in 1879 wrote about this in the newspaper “Modern Life”: “Let’s move on to something significant. For example, this is what is significant that appears on the rare canvases of Mr. Degas – always the same synthesis process conveyed to us with admirable artistic flair. Just look at how the ironer bent over hard work. If you look at the canvas from a distance, you might think that it was written by Daumier, but in a closer look it becomes obvious that this is more than Daumier. In this work there is a refined skill, the full power of which is difficult to convey. ”
Household scenes also include paintings depicting visitors to hat salons. For example, the painting “At the Fashionista” (circa 1882, Museum of Modern Art, New York), depicting a student of Degas Mary Cassatt. The compositional construction of the work is fragmented, built on the principle of photography. The girl trying on a hat is almost hidden behind the back of the chair depicted in the foreground. The modiste, who offers the visitor two more headdresses, is located on the left side of the canvas and is practically indistinguishable. The falling thick shadow makes the woman’s figure only a decorative element.
This work, the plot of which seems unpretentious, was the fruit of much thought by the author. The artist attached great importance to the expressiveness and “melodiousness” of the line, it was with its help that he sought expression in the reflection of form. Therefore, to create a single rhythmic silhouette of the whole group, he specially simplified the volumes of the middle plan. Canvases dedicated to this topic have become a real pinnacle of Edgar Degas skill. In them, he managed to achieve a new expressiveness in displaying reality and give a monumental generalization to the ordinary everyday scene.
Another type of everyday scenes that Degas devoted a lot of time to were naked women behind the toilet. Since about the 1880s, the artist began to create beautiful female images that do not fit into the generally accepted canons of that time. Degas rejected all conventions, the idealization of ideas about female beauty. “Beauty must be characteristic” – this postulate was taken by the master as the basis of his work. The artist argued that the nature of a naked body is best manifested in a variety of movements that can be natural only during bathing. So a series of works appeared, the heroines of which are busy with themselves: they wash themselves, wipe themselves, comb their hair and are so absorbed in their thoughts that they don’t think at all to accept graceful and graceful poses.
A vivid example of such a plot is the Taz pastel composition (1885, Hill Stead Museum, Farmington), whose main character just bent down to wet her sponge in water. Her smooth gesture is full of naturalness, and the composition is devoid of anything that could distract the attention of the audience from the girl. The following year, the artist wrote another work with the same name (Mray d’Orsay, Paris). In this picture, the heroine crouched in the center of the pelvis and, leaning on her hand, washes her neck. The figure of the girl is softly outlined by the light pouring from the window. To achieve greater expressiveness, Degas used contrasts, sometimes emphasizing the female body, then gently "merging" it with drapery. A third of the composition is a wide white shelf with toiletries: a jug with clean water, a comb and a hairpin. So the artist emphasized the depth of the room.
Constantly returning to the same topics, poses and gestures is explained by Degas’s uncontrollable pursuit of excellence. Friends joked about the artist, saying that "to make him stop redoing a picture, you can only select it." The painter was simply obsessed with the desire to truly capture any movement. A special place in the work of Degas is given to the images of women combing hair. Here, the artist never copied previously found compositional techniques, tirelessly looking for new ones.
One of the most famous pastels of this cycle, “A Woman Combing Her Hair” (1886, the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg), can serve as a perfect example of the artist’s constant search for an ideal pose and natural gesture. The work has several options, one of them is stored in a private collection of Morris (Philadelphia), and another at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York). In all versions, the heroine is depicted from the back, which allowed Degas to most convincingly convey her movements. The artist emphasizes the volume and depth of the shadow with elastic lines of the contour, creating expressiveness of the smooth movements of the heroine combing her red long hair.
Over time, Edgar Degas develops his own aesthetics of motion transmission. The master sought not only to fix the position of the arms, legs and body with photographic accuracy, but to feel and convey with maximum expressiveness the complex interaction of all parts of the body. Working on the works of this series, the artist made an attempt to create his own system, which would allow him to depict the specific pose of a woman extremely accurately, but in the most generalized terms.
In later works by the artist, the movements of the heroines become sharper, the shape of the body began to be conveyed more simplistically and often outlined by a sharp contour. A vivid example is the painting “A Woman Leaving the Bath” (1900, private collection). It is very clearly visible on how the late style of the master gained sharpened expression, generalization of forms and decorativeness. The painter proved that the body can be even more expressive than the face, therefore, completely ordinary motifs in his art received a poetic expression of life energy, graceful grace and beauty.
The last years of the master
At the beginning of the 20th century, Edgar Degas’s disease worsens so much that it almost completely loses sight. Unable to express himself in any other way than art, the master begins to seriously engage in sculpture, which he calls the "craft of the blind."
The themes that Degas tried to embody in a new form of creativity remained the same as in painting: jockeys, dancers and bathers. He sculpted small sculptures for himself, so a very small number of them were brought to the end, such as “The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer”.
Contemporaries of the artist noted that at the end of life, despite a sharp deterioration in physical condition, Degas’ interest in music, photography and poetry only intensified. In the circle of friends, he often began to sing Neapolitan songs, however, somewhere from 1895, the painter almost completely stopped talking with friends and rarely left the house, continuing to communicate only with a very narrow circle of close people.
Already after 17 years, in 1912, Edgar finally quit working. By this time he is already blind and completely worn out. There were several reasons for this poor state of the artist, this year his sister Teresa dies, and the painter himself has to leave his beloved house because of the reconstruction, which could no longer be postponed.
September 27, 1917 Edgar Degas died at the age of eighty-three years. The funeral was very modest – as the artist himself wished. Among the friends who came to take him on their last journey were Claude Monet, Leon Bonn, Mary Cassett, Henri Lerol, Jean-Louis Foren, Ambroise Vollard and many others. In his last will, Degas requested not to give mourning speeches during the funeral. Separately, he emphasized that if Foren really wants to say a few words, let them be very simple and concise, like: "He, like me, loved to draw most of all." Edgar Degas already became a recognized great painter during his lifetime, his paintings were bought up at fabulous prices, and although the artist’s last years were rather joyless, he still lived a rich and vibrant life and remained forever in the history of art.
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