Degas: A New Vision at the National Gallery of Victoria.

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Last week, I made my way to the National Gallery of Victoria, in Melbourne, to experience possibly a once in a lifetime exhibitions, of legendary French artist Edgar Degas works. Going into the exhibition I had expected to see at least some of his most famous pastels, drawings, prints, photography and sculptures and I wasn’t disappointed.

The exhibition had apparently brought together Degas works from over sixty lenders in more than forty cities across the world from Glasgow to Ottawa. Interestingly, the assembled collection had enough to please everyone from novice admirers to art scholars. Personally, I came to see what all the fuss was about in regards to his world-renowned ballet dancer paintings. In short, I found many of his paintings of charming ballet dancers, racehorses, Parisian nightlife and scene of everyday life remarkable. Though, I was disappointed that for someone touted as a prolific painter and sketch artists of ballet dancers, only a small faction of the rumoured 1,500 dance pictures were on show. I suppose, the famous little fourteen-year-old dancer lifelike bronze sculpture, was enough of a consolation.

By the way, and I don’t wish to sound so negative, I personally didn’t care too much for all his sketches (pastel and charcoal drawings) despite the fact that they are always talked about as being the most important collection of drawings by any Impressionist. Degas apparently went everywhere with his sketch books beginning with his early days sketching in museums, and we still today have some thirty-eight sketchbooks by Degas that have survived pretty much intact, covering the period between 1853 and 1886. I will concede that the most interesting thing about his later drawings is that, despite suffering dreadfully from eye problems in his old age, he was still skilled enough to sketch from memory, almost until his death in 1917.

With so much more to celebrate about Degas, than me being a little negative, I enjoyed looking at his sculptures, but most of all, I truly loved his paintings at the exhibition. For someone like Degas, who first tried his hand at painting historical scenes, he soon blossomed into an innovative painter, who captured everyday subjects, such as family members and his beloved ballet dancers. It is little wonder why Pissarro called Degas the “greatest artist of our epoch”. 

Below I have taken the liberty to highlight some of the more interesting paintings at the exhibition. I didn’t take any photographs while walking around (I believe photography was discouraged) but I made some personal notes about what I saw and felt at the time. Once I arrived home, I researched all the images I needed online to show you here. I hope you will forgive me if I haven’t covered something that you believe is worthy of a mention, but I do hope I have at least given you enough of an insight into the genius that was Edgar Degas.

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Standing in front of The Bellelli Family 1858-67, oil on canvas, at the NGV was awe-inspiring. This huge masterpiece measures 200 x 250 cm. In a lot of his early work Degas painted portraits of family members and relatives. Here we are shown his aunt Laure, her husband Baron Bellelli and her two daughters in their family home in Italy. The most interesting aspect of the portrait to me is how everyone seems to be looking in different directions except for one of Laure’s daughters, who seems to be looking straight at us.

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I can’t help but think of old Italy, in and around the period, that the Roman Beggar Woman 1857 was painted. (Almost a decade before 1857, turmoil had swept Italy with various organized revolts, which eventually led to Italian unification.) The image of an old beggar woman, painted by Degas, when he visited Rome, highlights to me the stress and reality of life in the ancient city. The old woman to me simply looks tired, as old age and poverty, have finally caught up with her. That said there is something truly beautiful about her.

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This painting has nothing to with the Melbourne Cup, a famous horse race held on the first Tuesday in November annually here, but that is what I am reminded of when I look at Degas Racehorses 1895-99 pastel. The image of riders in their brightly coloured racing jerseys on their horses resonates still today. It is remarkable how with only a few strokes Degas is able to capture the energy of a racing day.

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Degas painted his good friend Henri Rouart three times during his artistic life. This portrait of Henri Rouart in front of his factory 1875 is probably the best of them, capturing a snapshot of French prestige, power and industrialization. (Degas cleverly ties all these elements behind Rouart.)

Henri Rouart and Edgar Degas were life-long friend, who first met at the elite Lycée Louis le Grand in Paris between 1845 and 1853. In the years that followed their early friendship, Degas went on to focus on his painting, while Rouart (a painter himself) became a successful industrialist. Interestingly, Rouart never forgot about his passion for art, often buying many wonderful works from Impressionists. Rouart apparently also participated in many impressionist shows himself.

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It was while being delayed, waiting to return home to France from New Orleans, that Degas decided to paint the first of many unforgettable images of New Orleans life. A cotton office in New Orleans 1873 is a wonderful example of the hustle and bustle of working life. In 1872, Degas traveled with his brother to New Orleans, Louisiana, to visit their uncle. In short, his visit to New Orleans inspired a new sense of direction he wanted to take his work. Unable to sell the ‘cotton office’ to a British merchant, he brought the work home and exhibited it in an Impressionist show. In 1878, the ‘cotton office’ was the first Degas work of art to be bought by a museum.

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In getting to know Degas through my reading, I was surprised to discover that he never married, despite the fact that he adored women. His feelings about women still today hopelessly remain somewhat of a mystery, which makes it even more interesting as to why he was so obsessed with the female form in his art. He made a multitude of studies of women in his later years in highly intimate situations, usually bathing. (There is also a whole series of sketches that illustrate a day in a life of a brothel worker, which feels quite voyeuristic.) Woman in a tub 1883, is probably my favourite Degas work from the exhibition. It is intimate without being vulgar, showing a candid image of a woman’s body, in something so mundane as bathing.

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There is a lot that has been said about the oil painting entitled Interiors 1868-69, also known as The Rape. It shows what can only be described as a tense encounter between a man and a partially undressed women in the intimacy of a single lamplight. Art historians believe it is a staged theatrical scene that Degas used to showcase his increasing commitment to realism. Personally I feel, it is quite a creepy painting, heighten by the dramatic use of light and shadow.

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Rehearsal hall at the Opera 1872 is an oil on canvas, which seemed like everyone at the NGV exhibition stopped to look at, because of Degas reputation as a prolific painter, of backstage ballet dancers. Degas apparently loved to create these unusual ‘looking through the keyhole’ glimpses into the intimate world of theatre. He was as likely to show us a ballet dancer being fitted into her costume or being instructed by the teacher as performing an actual dance. In the end, I guess I can see what all the fuss is about.



Categories: Art History

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3 replies

  1. Such a great post a Robert and I really felt you took me along for the exhibition with your descriptions of each painting, it’s definitely made me love Degas more for reading this, thanks for your excellent post

  2. Wonderful post- you did an amazing job depicting who he was…the art you chose were perfect and your right – that picture is creepy…😊

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