8 x 10, oil on canvas
"Dancers II, after Degas"
16 x 20, oil on canvas
If you have studied Degas or seen his work in museums, you already know that he was not a particularly affable sort of fellow, (and it really pains me to write this) but, in fact, most of the time, he was regarded as downright rude, crude, insensitive, sarcastic, and often intentionally unkind...and those were his "good days" when other artists still tolerated him! In 1874, he sometimes went to the Cafe' Guerbois to meet with Monet, Sisley, Pissarro, Renoir and Cezanne; all of whom banned together to create the first Impressionist exhibit...except it wasn't okay to actually call Degas an Impressionist. Still a studio painter, he chided the others for painting in plein air, "If I were in the government I would have a brigade of policemen assigned to keeping an eye on people who paint landscapes outdoors. Oh, I wouldn't want anyone killed. I'd be satisfied with just a little buckshot to begin with." Ouch. And even though he is said to have had a special bond and friendship with artist Mary Cassatt, he revealed another side when he said "I don't admit that a woman draws that well!"...It may come as no surprise that he chose to never marry and by the time he died at age 83, he had successfully alienated himself from most everyone he had ever met. He began losing his eyesight years before he lost his will to work and eventually became completely blind in one eye; a time when he sought solace in creating sculpture. Degas was known for verbalizing his disdain for art critics and dealers, and scared away many would-be clients with his temper, often slamming the door in their faces. By the time he died, only a very small percentage of his work had been sold, while the vast majority had been hoarded away in his dusty studio. "I frequently lock myself in my studio. I do not often see the people I love and in the end I shall suffer for it--painting is one's private life...the moods of sadness that come over anyone who takes up art...these dismal moods have very little compensation."
While most artists in the 1880s depicted the affluent Parisians in a posed, decorous manner, Degas was drawn to ordinary moments or activities where the viewer feels she is "looking through a keyhole." He found it far more interesting to study the gestures of dancers when they were relaxed, stretching, or waiting to go onstage; moments that for him, revealed a more honest look at who they were. Because most were "scrawny girls" from poor backgrounds who more often than not, joined the ballet only because their families pushed them into it, he often referred to them as "street rats". And because he was not thrilled to be known as "the painter of dancers", he was quick to point out that his real interest was in depicting the drapery and backgrounds, as opposed to the dancers themselves. As for his bathers-series, he was not always kind to his models and remarked that he sometimes painted them in ugly, contorted positions because after all, "women are ugly"...(Doesn't that sound like someone who is tired of answering questions and knows that if he shocks you with his answer, you will go away and leave him be?) What I like most about the bathers is that he transforms them into interesting shapes on the canvas, often juxtaposing them with an abstract background of color; and because their faces are often not revealed, they retain a certain mystery...to me, they are simply beautiful, peaceful images. It is interesting to note that whether his work was praised or ridiculed, he found both equally stressful, and often said he preferred having nothing written about his work at all. He worked in oil, watercolor, pastel, pencil, photography and etching.
When I study (really study) his work I can see no rats, and certainly not an ugly woman in sight--each one is more beautiful than the next. Perhaps he put all the love, kindness and good humor he had into his work and simply had none left over. I'm no shrink, but I think it is possible that he feared attention as much as he wanted it. And if you think about it, artists who exhibit their work or simply choose to paint in public locations automatically open themselves up to all sorts of bizarre comments. What other vocation can you name where total strangers feel compelled to offer opinions and criticisms? Can you imagine looking over your dentist's shoulder and critiquing how she fills a tooth, or walking up to construction workers and questioning how they are pouring the concrete? It is a weird and wacky thing being an artist, and perhaps Degas was more sensitive to it than most of us.
So what were his influences, and what inspired him most?
I can tell you first and foremost that he loved drawing from a very early age and became a superb draftsman, "Drawing is the artist's most direct and spontaneous expression, a species of writing: it reveals, better than does painting, his true personality."
He adored Japanese Prints, an art form that introduced him to the idea of cropping figures in a bold new way, as well as painting from an all new perspective (as you see in my studies of his work above). This was a discovery that allowed him to choose daring compositions where the viewer is positioned above, below or right in the middle of a group of figures--he exhausted all possibilities, and it is this willingness to go against the grain and discover a whole new language in art that I love most about his work. Another influence from the Japanese prints involved incorporating a zigzag compositional pattern (as seen in the Absinthe Drinker). He also experimented with the effects of different light sources; analyzing the effects of artificial light as no one had done before. This is evident in the bather series where he boldly layered pastel colors in the background--and looking at them, I can't help but feel his discoveries must have been a never ending source of delight for him, " Work a great deal with evening effects, a lamp, a candle, etc. The tantalizing thing is not always to who the source of light, but the effect of light."
Photography also proved to be a source of inspiration, and he often experimented with using the camera as a means to study cropping for his canvases. And while many artists worked their compositions around three figures, he is known for his innovative works involving two-figure compositions.
And then there was Italy. He was charmed from the first time he visited at age 20, and continued to be awed by the art he discovered there in his many subsequent trips, " The air we see in paintings of the old masters is never the air we breathe....The secret is to follow the advice the masters give you in their works while doing something different from them."
I think the same could be said of Degas, the master, as he inspires us all to see with new eyes, and always be open to trying new things.
"I felt so insufficiently equipped, so unprepared, so weak, and at the same time it seemed to me that my reflections on art were correct. I quarreled with all the world and with myself"...Edgar Degas