Edgar Degas: A Die-Hard Incorrigible Reactionary
In Edgar Degas we have a highly intelligent man who from early youth haunted the great art galleries and knew Italy by heart. Fastidious, sophisticated and mistrustful of the world at large, he was also cantankerous and disdainful. He spoke of himself as “a die-hard, incorrigible reactionary.” Nevertheless he struck out new lines; notably he deliberately broke up classical composition, lowered the horizon-line, and scored surfaces with horizontal strokes.
French painter born in Paris in 1834; died there 1917. He was the son of a banker, Auguste de Gas, and, like Manet, belonged to the upper middle class by birth. His taste for classicism, the correctness with which he conducted himself, seem to be in keeping with his origins, but his exceedingly strong personality and independence of mind threw him into the camp of the revolutionaries. He learned to paint at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts, under Louis Lamothe, a pupil of Ingres, for whom Degas always had a profound admiration. Whatever the evolution of his genius, he was never critical of his early training. No doubt it was his great respect for human creation that was at the bottom of the misanthropy of which he is often accused, and behind which one can sense a deep tenderness.
The evolution of his art explains the very special position that Degas occupied in relation to Impressionism. In his earliest paintings, such as Spartan Girls and Boys Exercising ( 1860), Semiramis Building a City ( 1861), and the Misfortunes of the City of Orléans, for which he made numerous studies, or even (a little later) the Cotton Market in New Orleans ( 1873), which he painted during his stay in the United States, we are indisputably looking at an extremely classical art, with meticulous draughtsmanship. Little by little, without weakening the rigour of his drawing, he allowed colour to become more and more important. Colour was, however, always subordinated to a realism which would have been dry and narrow had not the genius of Degas brought it a breadth of vision and an originality in composition which saved him from academism, and gave his work a significance far in excess of the place he is given in the Impressionist movement.
Degas certainly belongs to Impressionism because of his desire to capture the fleeting moment, and his concern for presenting exact reality. His division of colour, however, never went so far as the dispersal stressed by the landscapists. Whereas with the Impressionists, form tended to dissolve in the atmosphere, with Degas it kept its density. In fact, unlike them, Degas wanted to sum up the living world within strictly determined limits: he had no taste for suggesting the rustle of leaves, the shimmer of water, or the changing effects of the sky. When landscape does intrude into his composition -in his race-course scenes in particular — it never gives the impression of a work executed on the spot; nor does one feel, with him, that Nature was necessary to his inspiration.