The French painter Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was in some respects the most misunderstood artist of his generation. While his character and his talents disposed him to honor tradition—it was said that the Louvre was Degas’ temple and Ingres his god—he’s nonetheless been identified by art historians as an ally of the Impressionist avant-garde. Owing to his participation in the 1874 exhibition of the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers, which launched the Impressionist movement, Degas has gone down in the history books as one of the principal exponents of the movement—which he clearly wasn’t.
As his friend and dealer Ambroise Vollard correctly observed: “[P]lein-air, the war-cry of Monet and his group, was anathema to Degas, even though he continued to exhibit with the Impressionists. At a Monet exhibition he turned up his coat-collar for fear of catching cold; too draughty, he said. With his feet firmly planted in tradition, Degas’ constant search was for plastic movement, and yet, because his line was freer and looser than Ingres’, and his color, even in his early work, more lucid than the run of contemporary bitumen, he was lumped willy-nilly with the rising group whose very tenets he disdained.”
Degas was especially responsive to subjects that entailed arduous practice and flawless technique for their perfect execution—hence his keen interest in horse racing and ballet dancing. The subject that seems to have inspired him most in his later years was the nude female bather in a variety of intimate poses, but there’s nothing in these drawings, either, to suggest an interest in the Impressionist aesthetic. In any case, Degas was far too independent to belong to any movement or group, and too much of a reactionary for membership in the avant-garde.
That Degas was something of a loner and a misfit in the art of his time was attested to by his contemporaries. This is the way the poet Paul Valéry, a devoted friend, described him: “Born though he was in the high noon of romanticism, mixing, in his early manhood, with Duranty, Zola, Goncourt, Duret, the whole ‘naturalist’ movement, and showing his pictures along with the first ‘impressionists,’ he nevertheless belonged to that delightful class of connoisseurs who take an obstinate pleasure in their own narrow-mindedness, are merciless to any novelty that is merely new, their minds full of Racine and old music, tireless quoters, ‘classicists’ to the point of ferocity and extravagant outburst—people who are now, alas, a vanished race.”
In an exhibition called Degas at Harvard, at the university’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum in Cambridge, Mass., there’s not much to be learned about Degas’ life and work that isn’t already known. Too often, perhaps, the show is more about Harvard than it is about Degas. Its catalog is almost wholly devoted to a detailed chronicle of Harvard’s Degas acquisitions—the cost and provenance of each item, the curators and collectors responsible for creating the collection. In other words, academic history rather than critical analysis.
Fortunately, the excellent wall texts that accompany the objects in the exhibition make up for what’s missing in the catalog. Here, for example, is the wall text for one of the finest drawings—After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself (circa 1893-98), executed in crayon on yellow tracing paper:
“In late life, Degas’s fascination with the female form intensified, and his work was dominated by his preoccupation with the female dancer and the female nude. The subject that prevails most commonly is that of a woman drying herself after bathing. Degas developed an extraordinarily rich series of variations across literally hundreds of works in all media, portraying his models standing and seated, drying their backs or arms, and massaging their necks and shoulders. Many of the bather drawings fall into long unfolding sequences of works as he captured the progression of a woman’s gestures at her toilette.
“Tracing paper, as here, was a critical element in this working process, allowing Degas to create a series of independent images. He used the tracing process to capture an image from one work and transcribe it to another, sometimes also introducing onto the tracing variations in pose as well as changes in color or detail around the central pose.”
Degas at Harvard remains on view at Harvard University’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum in Cambridge, Mass., through Nov. 27.