What It Feels Like

Peter Campbell

  • Degas beyond Impressionism
    August 1996
  • Degas beyond Impressionism by Richard Kendall
    National Gallery, 324 pp, £35.00, May 1996, ISBN 1 85709 129 9
  • Degas as Collector
    National Gallery, August 1996

Degas beyond Impressionism at the National Gallery shows an old man’s work. His eyesight was giving him trouble. His subject-matter had narrowed down to a few themes: women – standing, stretching, washing, drying themselves or brushing their hair; dancers – resting, putting on a shoe, standing in the wings or grouped on the stage. Subjects from modern life, which had characterised his early work, are missing: no jockeys, few portraits, no brothels, no street and café scenes, no music-hall singers. Landscapes, more of them than you might expect from a painter who was so scornful of the genre (and some of them in curiously lurid before-the-storm-colours), share the simplified outlines and generalised forms which distinguish the pictures of women.

The work comes from the middle to late 1880s through to the early 1900s. In 1890, at the age of 55, Degas rented a studio at 37 rue Victor Massé in Montmartre, which he used for the next 22 years. Contemporary accounts describe the studio as large, dim, dusty and crowded. Most of the pictures in the present exhibition must have been made there, but they no more describe it than a film describes the studio it was shot in. Later he took over the floors below to live in and to house his collection of paintings.

The transition in Degas’s career – from detailed oil paintings in which one is aware of light and space to large pastels in which one is aware of form and colour – was in part a physical necessity. His eyesight, always bad, was failing. A memoir of Degas by Sickert describes ‘what a torment it was to draw when he could only see round the spot at which he was looking and never the spot itself’. Sickert believed that the late work was an inspired adaptation to apparently intolerable conditions:

It may be safely said that the curious and unique development of the art of pastel that this obstacle compelled him to evolve would not have come into being but for his affliction. A large scale became a necessity. For the shiny medium of oil paint was substituted the flat one of pastel. Minute delicacies of detailed execution had to be abandoned.

As each moment of looking was valuable, pastels – which didn’t have to be allowed to dry – were preferable to the oil painting he had practised in the past, which had enforced delay in the working process.

But even on a purely technical level there is much in late Degas that cannot be explained by age and eyesight. On these matters Richard Kendall’s excellent catalogue of Degas beyond Impressionism is highly instructive, and informative and unintrusive in its judgments. It tests your instincts and answers questions without invading the space between you and the pictures. Some questions are simple. For example, why are so many images variations on one another? Others are moral. For example, are the drawings of crouching, self-absorbed women voyeuristic intrusions or celebrations of privacy? And some questions, which now turn out to have straightforward answers, arise from conflicting accounts of how Degas lived his last decades. The answers to these, according to Kendall, are: Yes, he was chauvinist, anti-semitic and conservative. No, he was not a recluse, indeed at some periods even into the 1890s he seems to have had an almost Jamesian schedule of evening engagements. Yes, he could be rude and difficult – excusably so when he was threatened with visits from strangers or bores. He was also a tease who enjoyed the drama of his own irascibility. No, he did not hide his work from public view; he avoided one-man shows but exhibited, sold and exchanged pictures regularly and managed the market for them shrewdly. Even work that was not sold in his lifetime, like the sculpture, was not just hoarded. Much of it was used in the self-referential processes of his art, which involved all sorts of tracing, copying and duplication-with-variation.

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[*] Nineteenth-Century French Drawing from the British Museum, at the British Museum until 15 September.