07 March, 2007

Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

La Chanteuse Verte, 1884
The Green Singer
Pastel
Edgar Degas

As often happens, I find that the Wikipedia entry for Degas is the best overview I've read.
His art was produced with planning and slow deliberation. He seems quite the opposite of van Gogh, who worked (although with direction and forethought) very quickly.
Degas' freshness of color I attribute to his masterful use of the pastel medium. Many aren't aware that he worked in pastel, given the popularity of oil paint among the Impressionists. As a matter of fact, Degas was very progressive in his use of media. He painted in oil and pastel, was a sculptor, a printmaker, and was an early practitioner of photography.
Pastel, however, is the hallmark media of Degas' legacy. He is considered to be the greatest figure in pastel's pantheon of artists, given his advancement of the medium at an historical turning point in art history.
A born Parisienne, Degas studied art in France, but also made a pilgrimage to Italy for study in classical principles of art. He is also noted for having traveled to New Orleans, in the U.S.
Additionally, the great artist lived 83 years, and never married. It is sad to read of his eyesight degeneration, and to imagine how he was supposed to have wandered, near his death, aimlessly on the streets of Paris.
Degas was part of a movement of artists who spanned the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries, and whose vision would replace allegory and morality in artistic subject, with modernist realism and what has been described as artistic "looking" at man.
Towards the latter part of his long career, he did loosen up his sense of detail, and began to value the abstract qualities of his paintings a little more. He was a studio artist, preferring to work from studies and memory.
Degas had his fair share of difficulty dealing with his public. "Why do you paint women so ugly, Monsieur Degas?" he was once asked by a hostess. "Parce que la femme en general est laide, madame, " came the reply. "Because, madam, women in general are ugly."
And to print this on International Women's Day! He had his uncouth way of acting, as many life-long bachelors do. In point of fact, his female nudes and figures did not suffer from sympathy or idealization. To his credit, he created new and fresh figurative works that respect the actual forms, presence and gestures of mankind. And he did it in a colorist fashion, as the incredible The Green Singer, demonstrates.
I like the idea that he did not destroy the past, in the so-called avant-garde way, but rather built upon it.
I recommend Expo-Degas for an online collection of his art.
I very much recommend the following article by Robert Hughes, for a highly opinionated criticism of the artist's life and work.
The only book I own about the paragon of pastel is: Degas by Himself, Richard Kendall. Does anyone out there recommend a good monograph of Degas?

8 comments:

vivien said...

Hi - an interesting post :)

pastel was a very unfashionable medium at the time as well - he helped bring it back into use, paving the way for the the likes of Toulouse Lautrec.

I've just been to a big pastel exhibition in London (a society that Degas had shown with in the past) and there was some superb work (links on my blog if you are interested)

Casey Klahn said...

Thanks for the heads up. I will have a look.
I will squeeze in here the factoid that the French Revolution, believe it or not, is considered to have been particularly hard on the pastel medium. Pastellists were having a great time with portrait commissions, you see.
When the rich people were socially de-throned, so was the medium of pastel! (Or so goes the story)
I'm happy you mentioned Lautrec; I even have a post of his van Gogh portrait in pastel somewhere in my archives!

Mary Richmond said...

The one and only time I've been to Paris I went to the D'Orsay and saw the Degas pastels there....oh my...I actually cried, they are so beautiful. They have them in the dark almost, with just enough light on them to see them to preserve the colors. The effect is like being in a shrine....which worked fine for me. Have you seen this incredible display? I think they have over a hundred pieces in it and it is permanent (I think). You would love it.

Casey Klahn said...

Maybe I'd better check out the D'Orsay website.
The low light is for the preservation of the acidic paper, right? As we know, the pastel pigments are so lightfast, they will be left hanging there in mid air long after the paper disintegrates :)
The Green Singer I have never seen before I searched for some images to post. It is off the hook incredible.
It definitely makes my list of 100 artworks to see before I pass.

Mary Richmond said...

I'm sure Degas didn't use acid free paper so you're probably right. Anyway, it's an incredible way to see his work. It would be worth the trip for you....besides, Sennelier is across the street from the museum....

Casey Klahn said...

I just now read that about Sennelier! How strange is that?
I could kill a day at Sennelier, easily. For, now, I will enjoy tramping around on their web site.

Katherine said...

I've been to both the Musee d'Orsay to see the Degas (big thrill) and the Sennelier Shop. They have MUST GO status if you are in Paris.

I also saw Degas works at the Art in the Making exhibition at the National Gallery in 2004. Very interesting - I thought I'd bought the catelogue and have just been looking for it but can't find it. Fascianting to see his works and particularly to see how he worked from monoprints (as i recall)

Casey Klahn said...

The painting Degas would do of me is one where I am green with envy right now.
I am writing a post on Sennelier right now, but will post a couple of other ones first.
I had a great conversation with the President of their US distributor (Savior Faire)once.

Abstract Expressionism, Art Criticism, Artists, Colorist Art, Drawing, History, Impressionism, Modern Art, Painting, Pastel, Post Impressionism