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.
Irascible independence, absurd truculence, passing hilarity and absolute integrity in the matter of his art were with him to the end. There is a description by one of his models of sessions with the 76-year-old Degas: he spent the first day in a foul temper, abusing Jews, modern egalitarianism and the 20th century. He used filthy language and asked her: ‘How many times do you have to get up in the night to piss?’ Next day, in a quite different mood, he described how the evening before he had taken a street car to Vincennes and walked round the fortifications. He gossiped. ‘Like all young men,’ he said, ‘I had a dose of the clap, but I never had much of a fling.’ He sang snatches of Italian opera, translating the words; hummed the minuet from Don Giovanni and, carried away by the rhythm, invited the naked model down from the table to dance.
He seems (that ‘not much of a fling’ apart) to have had no sex life whatever. In a letter of 1896, when he was 62, he wrote: ‘I have been reflecting, with a cold in my head, on celibacy, and three-quarters of what I have been saying to myself is sad.’ McMullen sifts through a lot of evidence, much of it gossip, and comes to the conclusion that he was impotent. Van Gogh saw him as an artist-anchorite:
Why do you say that Degas has trouble having erections? Degas lives like a little notary and does not love women because he knows if he loved them and spent a lot of time kissing them he would become mentally ill and inept in his art. Degas’s painting is vigorously masculine and impersonal precisely because he has accepted the idea of being personally nothing but a little notary with a horror of sexual sprees. He looks at the human animals who are stronger than he is and are kissing each other and having erections and he paints them well, precisely because he himself is not at all pretentious about having erections.
Perhaps it was as Van Gogh thought and he chose to make painting the centre of his life. Perhaps the space which it filled was created by an accident of physiology or psychology. Whichever way, the result was drawings which are sexually neutral – his contemporaries frequently thought them cruelly unflattering. To modern eyes they are not ugly, but neither are they provocative, as Manet’s nudes are, or delicious as some of Renoir’s are. Nor are they portraits of individuals: few artists have drawn the body so often and shown so few faces.
In Degas’s work the body is the starting-point for an art of variations. Only the body could lend itself to so many variations, because our response to it is so much stronger, more informed, more attentive, interested and lively than our response to anything else. Looking at women and drawing them, he achieved work which can be seen as the culmination of a tradition of figure-painting which includes Raphael and Ingres. It can also be seen as radical: the beginning of a change which would finally see the notion, implied in most European art of the previous few centuries, that beauty is the end of art discarded. One of the pleasures of looking at his work is to see how he stood at the end of one tradition and the beginning of another, and belonged to both.
His modernity lies not in his subject-matter – although it was the ‘lowness’ of his dancing girls and café types which struck many of his contemporaries – but in his attack on the methods of picture-making, in the sensitive, almost fastidious questioning of reflex actions and conventional proceedings. The Young Spartans is a history painting – it links him directly with Ingres and David – yet the bodies it shows are adolescent, as surely modern children as the rats who later became his models. It challenges the convention of the well-formed statuesque body as the vehicle for the characters of history. When he painted a carriage at the races or a street scene he syncopated the composition, so that a subject which his friend Tissot would have made a conventional genre-piece anticipates (perhaps through the influence of Japanese prints) the calculatedly arbitrary cut-offs in the framing of 20th-century photography. Above all, he invented (or discovered) new poses. His achievement was radical, his methods painstaking, and in many ways traditional. Basic questions about how Degas made his drawings are – perhaps because he was, by his own account, the least spontaneous of painters – rewarding: Shackleford’s and Adriani’s accounts of his working methods are worth the attention of non-experts. How long did he look at the model, how long at the paper? What he said suggests that he took big bites, not breaking periods of drawing with too many snatches of looking. He spoke of ‘a transformation in which your imagination collaborates with your memory ... Your recollections and your fantasy are liberated from the tyranny of nature.’ To draw from nature is to experience that tyranny at the most primitive level.
In the collaboration of imagination and memory which Degas speaks of, the representation of retinal images is not an interesting end: moreover it can only be fully achieved if one becomes a bit of an idiot, for to see contours and to make marks which approximate to them, to draw what you see, you must forget what you know. But some degree of idiocy is necessary: it is the way the vocabulary of drawn signs is expanded. You make a mark which seems quite unlike the way you first thought a toe looked, or an arm fell: you have a new way of drawing what you know. Or you think you do. When Ingres said young painters should wear blinkers when they passed a Rubens he was warning of a singularly infectious infelicity (as he saw it) of style. And when he said they should look to nature, nature was Raphael and the Antique.
Degas was able to use the idiot-regressive skills of drawing from nature in a way which neither denied continuity with the tradition of Ingres nor prevented him making pictures which gave an impression of unfaltering, rather cruel, documentary accuracy. He also had ways of freeing the imagination. The most interesting is his use of the monotype: on the face of it, an unpromising medium. The technique is simple. A picture is painted on glass or a copper plate with thick ink or oil paint. The plate is put through a press, and the image transferred to paper. The process is unpredictable, produces only one or two prints, and, given that most of the ink is removed from the plate on the first impression, no repeatable results. On the other hand, you can scratch out highlights, and by wiping and smearing paint on the plate, produce wonderfully rich textures. Degas used monotypes both as ends in themselves and to produce a base which was then worked over in pastel. It is appropriate that he used the technique for the brothel pictures, in which there is more imagination and less observation than in anything else he did. There are a number of monotypes in the comprehensive exhibition of his graphic work showing at the Hayward Gallery until 7 July.
Degas was working in an academic tradition and was thus, in some ways, very different from the Impressionists with whom he exhibited. He learned in the approved academic manner by copying the work of others. He made studies of figures which he worked and reworked; Shackleford can give a history of drawings for almost every figure in the Dance Class, and several of them reappear in other paintings. But unlike those artists who were Classical in the sense (among others) that they used a vocabulary of gesture which can often literally, and always in feeling, be matched in Classical sculpture, Degas found a poetry of movement in modern life. The gestures of his dancers tying their shoes or scratching their backs, of women washing themselves, ironing, or combing their hair, are as rhythmical, complex and beautiful as those Ingres found in the Antique. But they were founded on a habit of observation which an actor or cartoonist might aspire to. Paul Valéry, paraphrased by McMullen, described Degas describing a woman he had seen on an omnibus – the description accompanied by a performance in mime: ‘She had passed her hands over her skirt, smoothed out the creases, settled into the curve of the street car banquette, pulled up tight her gloves and carefully buttoned them, licked her lips and bit them slightly, stirred in her underwear, given the end of her nose a tweak, flicked a curl back into place with one finger, checked the contents of her handbag, stretched her half-veil, and assumed the expression of a person who has finished a job.’ ‘He was delighted,’ Valéry commented, ‘and there was a bit of misogyny in his pleasure.’
As he grew older he traced and copied more and more. Drawings grew in size as the heavy outlines of one tracing thickened and enlarged the outline of the one below. His eyesight troubled him – which could be one reason for the lines becoming less delicate: but those late, black drawings need no excuses. In them the anecdotal information about how a tired girl slumps, or a laundress leans on an iron, or a singer gestures to an audience, or a jockey turns in the saddle, are abandoned for an almost abstract consideration of the body and its movement in space.
Painting was his life, paintings his one extravagance. When he died his collection included works by El Greco, Perronneau and Tiepolo, and 20 canvases by Ingres, including Roger freeing Angelica, now in the National Gallery in London. Alongside these were a Van Gogh Sunflowers, eight Gauguins and seven Cézannes. Degas knew what worked and what did not: his collection is a proof of it. His prejudices have the force of critical insights. There was no Monet in his collection: it is as though he had sensed something vacuous in the majesty of a solipsistic art in which space, light and colour are used to evoke nothing but another space, another light, other colours. Nor is it surprising that he should be a hero of painters now, who grew up in the heyday of the anguish-free abstraction for which Monet’s waterlilies were an inspiration and justification.
Rémy de Saisselin’s essay in the sociology of art deals with changes in the making and marketing of paintings in Degas’s lifetime. His thesis is that pictures came to be bought for different reasons, that a value system based on meaning in the picture was overtaken by a system based on the sensitivity of the maker and the connoisseur. In the old times, the argument runs, rich people bought paintings because status demanded conspicuous consumption (many Palladian country houses bankrupted the men who had them built). The aristocrat’s obligation was based on a sense of what was owed to his status: the bourgeoisie bought status by assembling the same objects. But the aristocrat knew his taste, while the new-rich worried about the value of what they bought. Connoisseurship confirmed the value of what they were buying – confirmed its monetary value by asserting its spiritual value. The work was bought, not just to show how rich you were, but to show that you had a refined sensibility. The viewer’s act of discrimination is given the status of a creative act. At one end of Saisselin’s book is Madame de Stael’s heroine Corrine, with her collection of paintings which were ‘signs of history ... and hence a rather coherent set of historical and cultural values’. At the other end is Bernard Berenson, a necessary validating agent in the process whereby American money and European art produced (through what Henry Adams called ‘the universal solvent of money valuations’) a portable culture for a new aristocracy. It is an amusing essay, which brings the department store and the tasteful interior, the interior designer and the wife-as-shopper, into the same equation as altarpieces and family portraits. It makes an appropriate pendant to the books on Degas.
Degas’s retreat from ‘finish’ may have had something to do with failing eyesight, but looking at the drawings (he said at one point that he would have devoted his life to work in black and white if he could have done so) or the sculptures made during his last years – figures in wax not much more than a hand’s span high – it is as though he had taken each work to the stage where the imaginative impulse behind it was realised, and then stopped. He anticipated one strand in the notion of modernity by making the process as much as the end-result the thing to appreciate in a picture.