Humph

Peter Campbell

  • Degas: His Life, Times and Work by Roy McMullen
    Secker, 517 pp, £18.50, March 1985, ISBN 0 436 27647 X
  • Degas: The Dancers by George Shackelford
    Norton, 151 pp, £22.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 393 01975 6
  • Degas Pastels, Oil Sketches, Drawings by Götz Adriani
    Thames and Hudson, 408 pp, £35.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 500 09168 4
  • Bricabracomania: The Bourgeois and the Bibelot by Rémy de Saisselin
    Thames and Hudson, 189 pp, £12.50, February 1985, ISBN 0 500 23424 8

It is only fair to preface anything you write about Degas with a few of his own remarks. He challenges you to prove relevance and competence. He wanted to be ‘illustrious and unknown’, and wrong-foots biographers by making their curiosity seem prurient or irrelevant. He thought most writing about art ignorant and unnecessary: ‘I have spoken to the most intelligent people about art,’ he said to George Moore, ‘and they have not understood ... but among people who understand words are not necessary: you say humph, he, ha, and everything has been said.’ Critics not only rush in where there is nothing to be said, what they do say is glib: ‘Painting is not difficult when you do not know anything about it. But when you know, oh, it’s something quite different.’ Biographers have no easy task. There is plenty of material: notebooks, letters – which have some of the combative quality of his table talk. But he was a difficult man, in whose life protective colouring and character are hard to distinguish. In a notebook he kept in his twenties he wrote: ‘The heart is an instrument which rusts if it is not used. Without a heart can one be an artist?’

Some who knew him were persuaded that he had proved you could. The Goncourts describe him as ‘this constipated painter ... this fellow with his spiteful words swotted up and worked over in the nights made sleepless by his failure as an artist’. Manet said he lacked naturalness; Valéry that he made Molière’s Misanthrope look weak and easy. It was, in part, an act. ‘What’s this I hear?’ he said to one hostess. ‘You’ve been going around saying that I’m not wicked, that people have made a mistake concerning me. If you take that way with me what will I have left?’ Wounding words were something of a fashion in late 19th-century Paris – each wit delivering his barbed mots in his own style. Whistler concluded his with ‘a shrill “Eh what?” ... Zola with a patronising hein mon bon ... Degas with a loud dites quoi?’ Jacques-Emile Blanche compared him to a cavalry major on the drill ground: ‘If he makes a gesture it is imperious, expressive, like his drawing. But he soon adopts a defensive position, like a woman hiding her nakedness.’

Estrangements, the most painful those precipitated by the Dreyfus affair, marked his life. He was a conservative, acting according to ancient principle in a world which had forgotten honour and morality. He was a great attender at funerals and a good friend to those in trouble. He disliked the telephone, motor-cars, self-advertisers, Jews and universal education. ‘In the old days,’ he said, ‘the daughters of concierges became danseuses: now they have diplomas from the town hall.’ He was angry at any attempt to obtain public honours for him.

The background which formed this character was both bourgeois and exotic. His father ran the Paris branch of the bank his grandfather had founded in Naples. His mother’s family had a business in New Orleans: the paintings of the cotton dealer’s office and portraits of his Italian relations record his visits to grand-paternal territories. Family matters were kept within the family: strong affection, decorum, financial disaster, and at least one first-class scandal (Degas’s brother was attacked by an angry husband on the steps of the Bourse, and returned blows with revolver shots), give to the story a Trollopian sense of the fragility of respectability.

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