Few today remember Captain Henry Hill (1812-82), a military tailor turned quartermaster of the First Sussex Rifle Volunteers. According to the Brighton census of 1881, Hill, who was then in his late sixties, lived on ‘funded property’ at 53 Marine Parade with his wife, Charlotte; his 27-year-old nephew, James; and three servants. Less conventionally, he also lived with seven Degas paintings. In 1876 he bought four ballet pictures from the London branch of the Paris dealer Durand-Ruel, quickly followed by two more plus a picture then called Figures in a French Café. Hill was striking early: the first Degas had entered a British collection only in 1872. It also made his holdings the largest in Europe at that time. In the year of its acquisition, Hill showed Figures in a French Café at a local exhibition of modern painters; the Brighton Gazette’s art critic denounced it as ‘repulsive’ and ‘slapdash’. The Hill family thereafter kept it close, until, ten years after Hill’s death, it came up for sale at Christie’s in London, where it was ‘hissed on the easel’. It made its third and final public appearance at the Grafton Gallery in 1893 under the new and more provocative title (not approved by Degas) of L’Absinthe, which helped set off one of those frothing English newspaper rows about vulgarity, ugliness, morality and patriotism. The picture returned to France the same year, into the collection of Isaac de Camondo, and is now in the Musée d’Orsay.
It’s inviting to assume that by the 1870s British and French art were on separate and deeply divergent tracks: Pre-Raphaelitism versus Impressionism, sentimental moralism versus non-narrative realism; though with both countries still producing permafrosted academic painting. It may now be clear that it was the French who were to make the future of art; but at the time there was lively curiosity and interchange between Paris and London. Charles Deschamps, who sold Henry Hill his pictures, was a patron and friend of Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown and Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and later of Whistler. Monet came to London to avoid the Franco-Prussian War, Pissarro to avoid political persecution; both painted here. There were examples of cross-Channel quasi-pupillage, the most famous being Sickert’s to Degas. On the whole, the British were more drawn to new French ways than vice versa: one proposed name for the New English Art Club, founded in 1885, was the Society of Anglo-French Painters. But Degas, writing to the Danish artist Lorenz Frølich in 1872 from New Orleans (where his brother René was in the cotton trade), warned against any kind of cross-border flightiness: ‘One shouldn’t nonchalantly make Parisian art in Paris and Louisianan art in Louisiana – that would end up turning into Le Monde Illustré.’ Art must be rooted in a nation’s culture, otherwise it will be mere reportage. For Degas, French art was based on a specific kind of French realism, which English artists shouldn’t try to imitate. In a subsequent letter from New Orleans to James Tissot he writes that ‘there is in current English art which we both admire something like the exploitation of a trick. We can do better than them, and also more strongly.’
Tissot was a central figure in the Anglo-French exchanges of Degas’s early career. They probably met in the mid-1850s. Tissot had early success painting scenes of fashionable Parisian life, then escaped to London after the fall of the Commune, and had even more success with paintings of fashionable English life. Degas envied him both his success and the money he made. He begins a letter in September 1871: ‘Dear Tissot, Why the devil haven’t you written me a single word? They tell me you’re earning lots of money. Give me the numbers.’ Two years later, Tissot bought a large Dutch-style Regency house at 17 Grove End Road, St John’s Wood, which now almost overlooks the Abbey Road zebra crossing. When he returned to Paris a decade later, he sold it to Alma-Tadema, whose occupancy is commemorated by a blue plaque on the outside wall. Tissot’s earlier presence doesn’t get a mention (perhaps because of his Frenchness). As for their friend Degas, he never owned a house in his entire life.
Success and money: the words, and the hopes, run continuously through Degas’s life and through his letters. By the mid-1870s, not only was Tissot the more successful, but so were two of Degas’s other painter-friends, Alfred Stevens and Giuseppe de Nittis. There was also the case of Giovanni Boldini, who had first made his name as a portrait painter in London before moving to Paris in 1871. Stevens’s fame was based equally in Brussels and Paris, and perhaps bi-location would have been the answer for Degas as well. He seems to have had a vague plan to launch himself in London. Certainly Manet, writing to Fantin-Latour in 1868, thought it would be good for his career: ‘Tell Degas to write to me. According to what Duranty tells me, he is becoming a painter of the high life. That’s his business, and I regret almost as much the fact that he hasn’t come to London. The sight of beautifully groomed horses in motion would have inspired a few pictures in him.’ But Degas didn’t much like the English: he made the transatlantic crossing on an English ship, ‘aboard which there is so much unfriendliness’; he found New York ‘like England, but with a better mood’; further, he knew the language only approximately. He seems to have made a trip to Brighton to see Hill’s collection, at least according to Sickert. ‘He would now and again, in compliment to my nationality, recite the legend [then found in gentlemen’s lavatories] that appears to have impressed him most at Brighton: “Ond please (with great emphasis and an air of pathetic entreaty) hadjust yure dress biffore leaving.”’ He was keenly interested in selling his pictures to the English. Indeed, he even tried painting for the English market, as he understood it. In 1873, he tells Tissot he is working on a picture specifically for Thomas Agnew; he also thinks that the firm might like to handle his early masterpiece Portraits dans un bureau, since it depicted the New Orleans cotton exchange; he presumed that Agnew’s, which had started in Manchester, would easily find a ‘mill-owner’ there to buy it. But Agnew’s weren’t interested (the French art they sold was either of the Barbizon school or academic). More surprisingly, the painting didn’t find a buyer in France either, where it was offered around for 5000 francs – visitors to the Pyrenees may be surprised to find it at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Pau, which secured it for a knockdown 2000 francs.
Success and money. But they each meant something different for Degas. He didn’t want a large Regency house like Tissot. During his professional life in Paris he made nine, often inconvenient, changes of apartment and six of studio, though the dealer Ambroise Vollard said that he could well afford a house: by 1890, Monet and Degas were the highest-earning Impressionists. Not owning a house meant that he avoided both property tax and a householder’s responsibilities. (He also didn’t have to pay the so-called ‘business licence tax’, from which artists – along with fishermen, midwives, and other deserving professions – were exempt.) More to the point, he preferred to spend his money feeding what his friend Daniel Halévy called his ‘great and terrible passion’ of collecting. At the lower end, his eye was caught by printed calico headdresses and traditional Normandy handkerchiefs, up through Gavarni prints (of which he had two thousand or so by the time he died) and Oriental carpets, all the way to fine drawings (especially Ingres) and Old Master paintings. His rage to possess would sometimes lead to over-ambitious attributions: so his ‘magnificent’ Velásquez head is now thought to be the work of an anonymous 17th-century Castilian artist; while a large flower-and-fruit ‘Delacroix of the first quality’ has been reattributed to the painter’s assistant Pierre Andrieu. Theodore Reff, in his massive and resplendent edition of the letters, calculates that in the years 1898 and 1899 alone Degas spent 61,000 francs on paintings and drawings. In the same years, he was paying 656 francs per month to rent three floors on the rue Victor Massé, and 50 francs a month to Zoë Closier, his live-in housekeeper, cook and companion.
Degas’s notion of success was also particular to him. He wanted only artistic success, of which he was the sole judge. But he was absolutely, ruthlessly uninterested in fame, in social conquest, in honours, in being a public figure. He hated anything which might turn him into a brand. When his friend Caillebotte showed him the prospective poster for the Fifth Impressionist Exhibition, which featured the names of participating artists, he fought to have his taken off, and, uncharacteristically, lost. He felt ‘distressed’ and ‘humiliated’, complaining to the printmaker Félix Bracquemond: ‘When shall we stop being stars?’ He loathed his pictures being reproduced in magazines. He was the polar opposite of Courbet, whom he scorned for his bombast, self-promotion and politics; although, when Courbet’s L’Atelier came up for sale in 1897, Degas tried to buy it. He objected to any kind of formal dress (yet according to Reff, ‘rarely refused a white-tie dinner invitation’). He mocked his sculptor friend Albert Bartholomé for accepting the Légion d’honneur.
This absolutism was a mixture of high artistic ambition and personal intransigence. It also made him very difficult to deal with. You bought a picture from him, but he would still be working on it. It would be delivered to you, but he might want it back to retouch it – and would sometimes rework it to destruction. The joke ran that if you owned a Degas and he was coming to dinner, it was best to padlock the picture to the wall. Jean-Baptiste Faure, a leading baritone at the Paris Opera and a keen collector, was guided by Durand-Ruel towards Manet, Degas and the other Impressionists. In 1874, he bought five large canvases from Degas; ill-advisedly, he also paid for them. Degas delivered two, but said he was still working on the other three. He then showed one of them, Repasseuses, at the Impressionist Exhibition of 1876; but obviously, it still needed another 11 years of retouching. Time passed; Faure pressed; Degas explained that he didn’t have time to finish the three remaining pictures, because he had to keep painting others for other people in order to raise the cash for daily living. More years passed, with more fobbings-off: ‘It is becoming more and more difficult to be your debtor’ was one of Degas’s stranger ways of defining their relationship. When, 13 years after paying for his pictures, Faure had still only received two of them, he sued. The missing three were finally delivered. And it is entirely understandable, in terms of human psychology, that in the 1890s Faure sold out his entire Degas holdings.
In 1884, Degas painted his friend Mary Cassatt, then in her thirties; she was aghast that he made her look twenty years older. Five years earlier, he had begun painting Madame Dietz-Monnin, a rich boiler heiress married to a prominent politician. But their interchange was called off after what Degas called three ‘delicious’ sessions. According to his side of the story, she declined to pose again and suggested sending her hat and boa round to his studio so that he could finish the picture without her. According to the Dietz-Monnin side of the story, she ‘thought that she looked either drunk or like a prostitute soliciting a customer and returned the picture to Degas’. Looking at the unfinished picture, now in the Art Institute of Chicago, you can’t help siding with the sitter. Despite these aesthetic altercations, Cassatt remained a close friend, Madame Dietz-Monnin a continuing social acquaintance.
Nor was it only clients and sitters who felt let down. In 1879, several artists who had shown at that year’s Impressionist Exhibition, including Degas, Pissarro, Cassatt and Bracquemond, agreed to publish a portfolio of prints called Le Jour et la nuit. It was to appear occasionally, with different formats and prices: Degas referred to it as a journal and also a revue mensuelle. The first issue was scheduled for early 1880. All the other artists submitted their work on time. Degas, however, as Reff observes, proved both the ‘driving force’ behind the project and also the ‘braking force’; his failure to submit his own plate, now in its ninth state as he sought for perfection, capsized the project. Katherine Cassatt, Mary’s mother, certainly knew whom to blame. Degas, she wrote, ‘got them all to work for [the journal] so that Mary had no time for painting and as usual with Degas when the time arrived it appears he wasn’t ready … Degas is never ready for anything – this time he has thrown away an excellent chance for all of them.’
He didn’t just want to control his image, literal and figurative; he wanted to control what happened to his paintings. More than that, he claimed inalienable rights over them, long after they had been exchanged for money; in his mind the work still remained ‘his’. He wanted to be in charge of which of his prints or paintings were shown where, how and by whom. He had no legal right, of course, but believed in the artist’s ongoing moral right. When the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Pau, having bought his cotton-exchange picture in 1878, wanted to send it to the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, Degas tried to prevent them. He loathed being taken for granted, let alone taken advantage of. In 1901, Henry Roujon, a high arts administrator, indicated to Daniel Halévy his desire and willingness to receive a picture from Degas to hang in the Louvre. Degas was the opposite of flattered. He told Halévy:
Roujon would have thought: ‘This Degas, he’s a pawn I’ve always ignored. Now’s the moment, I’ll advance him a rank.’ You can tell Roujon that I am not a pawn and do not wish to be advanced. He won’t get a picture out of me.
But Degas did claim one moral right that was eventually enshrined in law. In January 1893, Faure sold back to Durand-Ruel three of the contentious pictures he’d bought from Degas 19 years previously. Faure had paid 2375 francs each for two of them, and 1300 francs for the third; now he resold them to the dealer for 30,000 francs. In June of that year, clearly with this transaction in mind, Degas complains in a letter that when a venal collector resells his work after a number of years, he often makes a great profit, whereas ‘it doesn’t put even five francs into my pocket.’ In 2006, following a European Directive (much opposed by the London art trade), artists’ resale rights were introduced, and living painters – as well as dead ones, whose work is still in copyright – now receive a percentage of the sale price. Nowadays, Degas would receive his ‘five francs’ and more from Faure’s sale to Durand-Ruel.
As a young man, he had been advised by Ingres to ‘draw lines, young man, many lines.’ He lived long enough to witness the advent of Cubism, of which he said: ‘It’s more difficult to do than painting.’ As his correspondence confirms, he didn’t go on about the Meaning of Art, or the Place of Art in Society; he was too concerned with the making of art, and how to make that making better. But he identified from early on a central precept which underlay his art: it was a matter of concentration not expansion. ‘Success can only be achieved by summarising oneself … by seeing fewer things.’ And again: ‘Art does not expand, it condenses. And if you insist on comparisons, I’ll tell you that to produce good fruits, one must grow them flat against the wall on a trellis.’ He didn’t expand; he returned to the same subjects again and again, refining and re-seeing. He always refers to himself as a realist rather than an Impressionist; perhaps he disliked the popular assumption that an ‘impressionist’ painting must have been made quickly. ‘Nothing in art must look like an accident, even movement,’ he wrote in 1886; while George Moore reports him as saying: ‘No art is less spontaneous than mine. Of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament, I know nothing.’ At the same time, he was always experimenting, pushing the form – whether it was painting or monotype or even photography. His friend Georges Jeanniot recalled: ‘We were extravagant, all the time etching. We massacred zinc and copper plates. We used the most mysterious tricks and skills, the most unconventional aquatinting.’ And throughout his life Degas was always fighting against received opinion. As a young man he wrote open letters about the organisation, judging and hanging of the Salon. He complained publicly against the over-cleaning of pictures at the Louvre. It was he who pushed, chivvied and found locations for six of the seven Impressionist Exhibitions (inviting five women artists to show their work). At a time when Durand-Ruel was displaying his Impressionist pictures in carved gilt frames on red fabric walls, no doubt to make them look more ‘classic’ and reassure potential customers, Degas wanted a picture’s surroundings to ‘support and complete’ it. So at the Impressionist Exhibition of 1877 he and Pissarro introduced white frames. Later Degas used pale blue or green frames; and less oppressive colours on the walls.
The last collected Degas Letters was Marcel Guérin’s second edition of 1945, which contained 251 items. Reff’s three volumes contain 1240. Many of the additions have been published elsewhere in the long meantime, but a quarter of Reff’s are, in whole or in part, previously unpublished. Now they are all in one place, with misdatings and misreadings corrected, and a plain English translation included. This is a lifetime’s work of scholarship, staggering in its detail and annotation, profound in its judgment. It is also a very one-sided correspondence: the number of surviving letters to Degas is a mere sixty or so. And there are substantial losses among the outgoing letters: nothing he wrote to Mary Cassatt has survived, nor to Manet or Gauguin; only one letter to Renoir is here. Some of the exchanges are partial, like that with Gustave Moreau, whose friendship was vital when both men were young and aspiring in Italy; they knew one another for decades, but the only four extant letters to Moreau all date from 1858-59. At the other extreme there are an enormous number of letters – twice as many as to any other correspondent – to the same person and on a single theme. These are to Durand-Ruel, who acted as Degas’s quasi-banker as well as his dealer. The amounts of money required vary; as does the tone, on a scale from pleading to furious (‘I am waiting for you as for the Messiah for the damned rent’), and at first seem powerfully repetitive. Yet that, paradoxically, becomes the point: money, and the immediate weekly need of it, was a powerfully repetitive presence throughout Degas’s life, regardless of the size of his income.
Reff fills in as many gaps as possible, while some of his notes add up to brief lives of surrounding minor characters. And despite the missing letters (and our hovering awareness that Degas would almost certainly have regarded the whole project as a monstrous and vulgar intrusion), it forms a rich and engrossing quasi-biography. The caricatural image of Degas is a version of his old age: lonely, raging, chilly, sharp-tongued, misanthropic, misogynistic, antisemitic. The letters, however, show a man who, while absolutist about his art, had many attractive qualities. He was devoted to his widespread family (Naples, Brussels, New Orleans, even Buenos Aires); ‘What a good thing family is!’ he exclaims on being met by his own kin at the New Orleans railway station. That is, unless and until it behaves badly: when his brother René deserted his blind wife and their three children for another woman, Degas shunned him for more than a decade. He was devoted to his friends: kind, witty, teasing, flirtatious, frequently pretend-tempted by marriage. (He thought one advantage of marriage was that it relieved you from ‘the demands of gallantry’ – though this was evidently not the case for many Parisian husbands of the time.) He could be gently and sharply mocking: he teased Nadar with the line: ‘Faux peintre, faux artiste, faux … tographe!’ He was also aware of his social limitations – ‘I can neither play piquet nor billiards, nor curry favour, nor work outdoors, nor be simply pleasant in society’ – and also knew that he had ‘the look of a magistrate’, which put some people off. But according to Halévy, Degas was ‘un ami indéfectible’ – ‘an unfailing friend, who never missed a funeral. He would traverse the whole of France to help bury a friend. It was his most profound religion.’ He had a touching friendship with Évariste de Valernes, who had failed as a painter in Paris and returned to Carpentras to teach – the sort of connection other Parisian artists might strive to throw off. He never boasts about his work, rarely expresses even satisfaction with it, let alone the status that it gives him. He is aware of his reputation for being hard-hearted, and sometimes plays up to it, but not always convincingly. He is often moved to tears, more by the sufferings of others than by his own. At Lourdes, he is ‘very touched by the emotions of others. Sometimes it exploded to the point of transfiguring them.’ And he asks, quite plainly: ‘What is an artist without a heart?’ ‘My hard heart is breaking nonetheless,’ he writes when Bartholomé’s wife lies dying. In 1906 he is given a homemade rug or bedspread by his ‘dear little cousins’, the three daughters of his niece Giulia Bellini: ‘I look at it, I touch it, I study it, I handle it. It’s delightful in its taste, colour, manner. I’m much moved, old savage that I am.’ Not everyone was scared off by his reputation: in 1894 the artist-collector Egisto Fabbri visited his studio and was struck by Degas’s innate modesty, and the way he ‘seemed to be searching for things and working as if he were still young’. All his life he was keen to encourage and give practical help to the struggling young painter, dancer, journalist, porcelain decorator, Guadeloupean actress and phthisic cabaret singer. He instructs Ludovic Halévy to look after an impoverished photographer: ‘Keep an eye on Barnes, while protecting him, so that he becomes quite simply happy.’
In September 1870, with the Prussian army surrounding Paris, Degas enlisted in the Garde nationale. But when it came to shooting practice, he discovered that he couldn’t see the target with his right eye. This was the beginning of a lifelong affliction which led to blindness. In New Orleans he complains of ‘a blinding light which pains my eyes’; he is diagnosed with photophobia. And so, with barely a picture sold, he knows the future. Later, ‘irregular astigmatism’ is identified. ‘You can’t imagine the holes I have in my eyesight,’ he writes to his sister Thérèse in March 1892. ‘It’s like seeing through a skimmer.’ In 1895-96: ‘Since my sight has diminished further, my twilight is more and more solitary and more and more sombre. Only the zeal for art and the desire to succeed keep me going.’ In 1909, ‘My God, how my eyesight is disappearing! It makes me sombre and fierce.’ By his death in 1917, he was totally blind. And then there were all his other medical problems: chronic bronchitis, incontinence, kidney problems (‘anaemia caused by chronic nephritis’), wonky digestion, lumbago, bladder trouble. ‘Off we go, moving toward the end,’ he announces gloomily to his favourite sister, Marguerite, in 1892 – but the end is still a quarter of a century away. He is treated, variously, with cupping, rye fungus, bismuth; at one point he is taking ‘a footbath, aconite and Dr Franck’s health grains’; at another ‘bismuth, laudanum and L’Elixir Asiatique’. He reports: ‘I’m treating my bladder a lot with turpentine’ – a traditional remedy, which sounds as sensible as injecting yourself with bleach. He takes the cure at Mont-Dore, Cauterets and Pontarlier; he even drinks the waters at Lourdes. He wears a ‘black device’ over his eyes which puts the incoming light on a ‘diet’; he has partial detachment of the inner pleura, which raises his risk of pneumonia; nearing seventy, he falls downstairs, ‘my head banging on every step’; Durand-Ruel advises an American diet (‘water, milk and vegetables replace wine and meat, etc etc’); finally, he begins to go deaf. He lived with this diminishing health for nearly half a century, and it is strange, or lucky, that he never underwent an operation of any kind.
Away from art, he was conservative in his tastes, but not averse to new conveniences – like the sleeping-cars he discovered in America (on which you could even get your boots shined overnight). But he always refused to have a telephone installed in his apartment. He regarded it as merely an interruptive device; and after all, there were eight collections and eight deliveries of post daily in Paris at that time. In 1894 his friend Forain, who was entranced by new inventions (he loved his tricycle), had a telephone installed and sought to impress Degas by arranging for someone to ring up while he was there. Degas was not impressed: ‘So that’s the telephone … You’re called and you come running.’ Degas never came running for anyone. On the other hand, he was always on the move. In 1905 Jeanniot commented on his ‘furious energy’. Degas, who was seventy at the time, replied: ‘As for the furious energy you joke about, it’s the easy and sad resource of a poor bachelor. If you didn’t have a pretty wife and a pretty daughter you’d be equally reduced to such furious energy.’ Or perhaps he would have been like that anyway. He loved planning and then making long, complicated journeys around France by train; he did a circuit of Burgundy in a horse-drawn tilbury with Bartholomé; in later years he walked a great deal and would sometimes spend two or three hours a day on buses and trams. But then, movement for him was more than just movement; it was something symbolic, even metaphysical. As he wrote to Henri Rouart after the death of his wife: ‘You must continue to look at everything, the big boats and the little ones, the moving about of people on the water and also on land. It’s the movement of things and of people that distracts and even consoles, if it’s possible to be consoled when one is so unhappy. If the leaves on trees didn’t move, how sad the trees would be, and so would we!’
He liked: leg of lamb with white Soissons beans; Dundee marmalade; dogs; the omelettes of Mère Poulard at Mont Saint-Michel; the opera Sigurd by Ernest Reyer, which he saw more than forty times; puppet shows; Gluck, whom he prized above Beethoven; the Thousand and One Nights; hedgehog mushrooms; organising things and being bossy about it; the beauty of the Auvergne; the army; France. ‘There is only one country – and it’s ours, sir!’ He disliked: bluestockings, feminism and George Sand; the ‘tyranny’ of ‘the detestable picture rail’; Edmond de Goncourt and his pretentious ‘écriture artiste’; the weather at Étretat, which was ‘nice but more Monet than I can bear’; plein-air painting (‘The other day, Rouart was doing a watercolour on the edge of a precipice! Come off it, painting isn’t sport!’); eating chops in the provinces – because the best ones were always sent to Paris; the vandalising over-restoration of French medieval architecture, as practised by Viollet-le-Duc and others; the ‘terrible people’ of the Auvergne.
‘As we get older we become hardened in our least acceptable characteristics.’ This dictum certainly applied to Degas. Writing to Alfred Stevens some time in the 1880s to apologise for his rudeness to a Belgian baroness, he ‘explains’ his behaviour thus: ‘One doesn’t have the right, without the excuse of art and the fierce habits it engenders, to be as gruff as I was and as brutal.’ This is a strange apology, because it isn’t really one. Degas does claim the excuse of art – who if not he could have it? Art meant more to him than a boatload of Belgian baronesses; but it was also a get-out clause for bad behaviour. In 1859 he wrote to Gustave Moreau: ‘Do you remember when you agreed with me telling you how we appreciate the character of a painter, so that his good or bad thoughts always please us equally?’ In his younger years he was known in his circle as a ‘young bear’, nipping and playful; by the mid-1880s he self-characterises as an ‘old bear’; later he is a ‘grey bear’, liable to maul you to death. He likes to quote the Russian proverb ‘silver in the beard, devil in the heart’. He took offence easily: in 1903 he broke terminally with his old friend Jacques-Émile Blanche for allowing an art magazine to reproduce Blanche’s portrait of him. (Punitively, he also took back from Blanche’s mother one of his greatest pastels, Six Friends at Dieppe, which he had given her.) Increasingly, things – people, society, events, Dreyfus, Jews – make him angry; but again, being an artist is his excuse. Writing from the spa at Cauterets in 1888 to Rouart: ‘I’ve seen some beautiful things through my anger, and what consoles me a little is that through anger, I never stop looking.’ Degas was in his mid-fifties – it’s as if anger had become necessary to him. Flaubert, who also raged at the world and its stupidity, was only in his mid-forties when he put it like this: ‘It’s true that many things infuriate me. The day I stop being indignant, I shall fall flat on my face, like a doll when you take away its prop.’ Another comparison: in 1897, Degas writes to his friend Paul Lafond, apologising for not having offered sympathy on the death of Lafond’s brother and the acute illness of his mother. ‘I am becoming dried-up. I have failed to water my heart, and this is the consequence.’ This recalls the formidable Madame Flaubert’s rebuke to her (similarly unmarried, similarly art-devoted) son: ‘Your mania for sentences has dried up your heart.’
Degas’s anger may have helped him to look; but it also stopped him from thinking. His antisemitism was a stain on his life. He was an enthusiastic reader of Édouard Drumont’s vilely antisemitic newspaper La Libre Parole, founded in 1892. When the Dreyfus Affair began, the casual everyday antisemitism among the French middle and upper classes went public. Art was no excuse this time. For Degas, as for many others, stupidity was disguised as principle, bigotry confused with patriotism. He boasted a great love of the French army, in which he had served (the army, or a member of it, was responsible for framing Dreyfus). Degas broke with many friends over the affair. The saddest and stupidest example was that of Ludovic and Louise Halévy. They had been two of his closest and oldest friends: Ludovic and he had been at school together; Louise had been a close childhood friend of Degas’s sister Marguerite and he was deeply attached to her; he dined at their house on a weekly basis. Nor were they Jewish (except by Nazi laws): Louise was of Swiss Huguenot descent; Ludovic was Catholic, his father having converted from Judaism. The break came on 13 January 1898, the very day Zola published J’Accuse. Degas was dining with the Halévys; their sons had invited some of their friends, and these young strangers expressed Dreyfusard opinions. A week later, Degas wrote to Louise taking his leave of them all. It is a sad yet dignified letter: ‘Your kindness sought to integrate me with youth. But I am an annoyance to them, and they are in the end insupportable to me. Leave me alone in my corner. I will be happy there. If I let our mutual affection, which goes back to your childhood, take any more strain, it would break.’ And with that, it breaks, because he breaks it.
Writing from New Orleans in 1872, Degas expressed the desire for a life which would be ‘something well-made, something well-ordered’, like Poussin’s, but would also contain ‘Corot’s old age’. He could hardly be said to have achieved either. A couple of months later, he wrote that what would prevent him from having ‘the beautiful old age of Corot’ was the fact that ‘I have the vanity of an American.’ Which is a strange statement. American vanity tends to display as boosterism and bluster. Degas’s vanity was that of a Frenchman, aloof and enclosed. Either way, his old age was very far from that of the calm, genial, pipe-smoking Père Corot. Rather, it was a time of rage and pain, of cutting himself off from friends, and of encroaching darkness for those eyes which had seen so much and represented so much. He was growing deaf as well as blind. Zoë Closier read the newspaper to him over lunch; also the works of Alexandre Dumas, who had become his favourite writer. He likes Dumas because his novels are ‘patriotic’; as does his ‘patriotic’ friend Renoir. He fretted about the fate of his great collection, which surrounded him, but which he couldn’t see. (Rightly so: it was all dispersed at auction over six days in 1918, while the German artillery was bombarding Paris.) He writes no letters after 1912, though he signs one in 1915. In the same year he is filmed by Sacha Guitry, surreptitiously and against his explicit wishes, on the boulevard de Clichy. He has a female companion at his side, perhaps his niece Jeanne. He looks suspiciously at the camera, as if he can see it (perhaps he can); the viewer feels Guitry’s presence as an intrusion. The clip lasts eight to ten seconds. Contemporaries, perceiving this grand, silver-bearded, bowler-hatted, nearly blind figure briefly in motion, described him ‘wandering like King Lear’ and as a ‘Homer with vacant eyes’. At the 2011 show Degas and the Ballet at the Royal Academy, it was played on a loop in a side gallery, towards the end of the exhibition. I watched it about twenty times. He walks towards us, and seems to look at us; he walks towards us, and seems to look at us; he walks towards us, and seems to look at us. And he is still moving, if only in short, repetitive bursts. ‘It’s the movement of things and of people that distracts and even consoles, if it’s possible to be consoled when one is so unhappy. If the leaves on trees didn’t move, how sad the trees would be, and so would we!’
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