Degas’ Private Collection Makes for Perfect Met Show

Going through the wonderful exhibition of The Private Collection of Edgar Degas at the Metropolitan Museum the other day, I thought of the passage in Paul Valéry’s Degas Dance Drawing , in which the writer, who knew Degas in his later years, offers his reflections on the scrupulousness of the artist’s judgments.

“All he could wish for,” Valéry wrote, “was to please himself, which meant satisfying the severest, most difficult and incorruptible of judges. No one more positively than he despised honors, advantages, wealth, and the kind of glory that writers can so lightheartedly hand out to the painter. He was harsh in his mockery of those who entrust the fate of their work to the discretion of opinion, established prestige, or commercial interests. As the true believer keeps his mind on God, in whose sight no subterfuge, negligence, contrivance, or collusion, no attitudes or appearances can avail, just so did Degas remain impervious and inflexible, exclusively devoted to the absolute idea of his art, which possessed him.”

Now, in the presence of the art collection that Degas painstakingly acquired for his own pleasure and instruction, we are reminded that he brought the same standard of scrupulousness to his judgment of other artists’ work. In this collection, some of the greatest artists of the era in which Degas himself lived-he died in 1917 at the age of 83-are seen in the company of others who are either minor or, in some cases, quite unknown to us today. “Opinion, established prestige, or commercial interests” clearly played no more role in Degas’ decisions as a collector than they did in the execution of his enormous oeuvre . And in regard to his own oeuvre , nothing is more interesting in this exhibition of his collection than to see which of his works he reserved for himself. In this exhibition, Degas as a painter faces some pretty stiff competition in the works of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Eugène Delacroix, Édouard Manet, Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin, yet he proves to be the equal of the greatest, if not, indeed, greater than some-Gauguin, for example.

We naturally would expect to see Ingres occupy a place of honor in this collection, for Degas looked upon Ingres as something of a god, and we are certainly not disappointed on that score. It is more of a surprise to see Delacroix so strongly represented as well. And what a selection of Delacroix this is! Seldom do we get to see such a broad range of Delacroix’s drawings. And of special interest too, both as a painting of remarkable quality and as a measure of the depth of Degas’ devotion to Delacroix’s art, is his Copy After Delacroix’s “Entry of the Crusaders Into Constantinople, ” circa 1860. To find that painting in the same collection with Delacroix’s own painting of Henri IV Entrusts the Regency to Marie de Medici (A Copy After Rubens) , circa 1834-35, is proof, if we still needed any, that Degas was as much the artistic heir of the pictorial tradition that spurned Ingres as he was an heir to Ingres himself.

In some respects, however, the most astonishing “finds” in this exhibition are the two paintings by El Greco, which Degas seems to have acquired in the 1890’s. The Saint Dominic , circa 1605, is now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Saint Ildefonso , circa 1603-14, in that of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Degas’ collection is, with few exceptions, concentrated on the art of the 19th century. His devotion to the old masters was profound, but he did not go in for collecting their work. But in the 1890’s, El Greco was a new “discovery,” after a long period of neglect, and Degas was quick to get hold of what he could.

It still comes as something of a shock to realize that as recently as 80 years ago, Degas’ collection was still intact. He had hoped to organize his own museum, but it was a project never realized. So following his death in 1917, his collection began to be dispersed, and in the fiercest period of World War I, with the French suffering appalling losses and Paris under bombardment, dealers and museum directors descended on the French capital to acquire from the collection what they could.

It is impossible, I think, not to have mixed feelings about the fate of Degas’ collection. On the one hand, it would have been enormously interesting for us to have had the museum Degas had in mind to organize. On the other hand, what enormous pleasure the world has derived from the dispersal of his collection to the even greater museums where so many of them now repose.

About the current exhibition of The Private Collection of Edgar Degas at the Met, however, there can be no mixed feelings. It was a wonderful idea to reassemble so much of the collection for this exhibition, and it has been done with a taste and discretion that are equal to its great subject. The mind reels in trying to imagine what feats of scholarship, diplomacy and patience are required to bring off an exhibition of this sort. Even the wall labels are remarkably intelligent and discreet, and the catalogue, too, proves to be full of interesting things. I was particularly touched by Françoise Cachin’s account of Degas’ relations with Gauguin, whom I would not have imagined to be much to Degas’ taste. But it turns out, as Ms. Cachin writes, “These two recognized, admired, and had great affection for each other,” And this is, in part, what Gauguin wrote to an artist-friend about Degas in 1898 when Gauguin himself was living in Tahiti:

“Oh, yes! Degas is often said to be vicious and biting.… But this is not true for those whom Degas judges worthy of his attention and respect. He has an instinct for warmth and intelligence.”

He was certainly a figure who looks more and more remarkable the more we know about him, and this exhibition of his collection adds something crucial. It remains at the Met through Jan. 11.