To the Contrary, Edgar Degas
The thing about Edgar Degas is that, except for his art, he did just about everything wrong. Even when not wrong, he was difficult and contrary.
Even his one time friend and colleague while breaking down the traditional barriers in art, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, said, “What a creature he was, that Degas! All his friends had to leave him; I was one of the last to go, but even I couldn’t stay till the end.”
The painter whose penetrating views into middle class life in Paris gives us lasting intimate views was the ultimate outsider. “The artist must live alone,” he said, “and his private life must remain unknown.” Creator of the most sensual nudes, gracefully beguiling dancers, Degas never married.
His family name, by the way, was De Gas, not Degas, but he considered it too highfalutin.
|Ballet Class Visitor / © Deborah Julian|
You wouldn’t know it by the breakthrough art for which Degas is best known today, but his original intention was to be a history painter, following a conservative path like his hero, Ingres. Unlike his fellow avant grade artists, his pictures were accepted at the traditional art salons in Paris from the start.
But when he was forty, he decided he didn’t like Salon culture anymore and abruptly cast his lot with the avant-garde of Monet and others who were derisively called impressionists because the evanescent nature of their work set them apart from the more solidly based, formal artists.
This did not mean he like impressionism, however. He hated the term and wanted to be called “a realist,” instead. He even mocked their commitment to plein air painting.
Just to be a little more contrary, he took a leading role in organizing the Impressionist Exhibitions, from 1874 to 1886, showing his work in all but one of eight. Yet he fought with the group incessantly over who should be included. His insistence that non-impressionists be included caused so much rancor, the group eventually broke up.
That, however, was not the end of his alienating fellow artists.
But first, he put his attention to creating some of the most memorable artwork of his time. It started with his subjects, the average people living in the shops, bars and streets of Paris, people considered uninteresting by conservatives as well as the avant-garde impressionists who preferred landscapes and pretty characters.
Edgar Degas experimented radically with color, but for me anyway, what makes his art stand out is its original slant on its subjects. His primary characters often were not centered in the picture.
Important objects partially disappeared off the edge of his canvas. A committed realist, Degas painted the world more in the way we ideally see it, unposed, not poetically balanced.
For the last twenty years of his life, Degas was without friends, finally wandering around, nearly blind. The Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s accelerated the alienation as his staunch anti-Semitism became more pronounced, but that might be too narrow. It seems Degas disliked almost everything. He was said to have fired a model after learning she might be Protestant.
He also hated social reform and technological innovation, like the then daring telephone. Yet, his art was so unforgettably out front.
In respect for the pastels Degas contributed in recording the story of ballet dancers at work, before the public and behind the scenes, Deborah’s first contribution using his art uses a gentle image of ballerinas stretching at the bar while a perfectly color-coordinated cat stands by with a ribbon, hoping someone will come play.