Saturday, 17 January 2009

Degas: a quest for perfection

This article was first published in my newsletter "Notes From My French Easel" – November 2008. 

I just read a book in French titled “Mon oncle Degas” (“My uncle Degas” by Jeanne Fevre – Pierre Callier editor, Geneva 1949). The character that emerges from this book is a well rounded artist, with broad interests in many artistic fields and a dedication to his art that will confine him to his studio in the later part of his life.

Jeanne Fevre described the painter in a few words: “If he was not cheerful, it’s because he was clearsighted. If he was sometimes shy, it’s because he was always tormented by his desire of perfection.”
Degas had a profound admiration for the painter Ingres and following the recommendation of this master, Degas spent numerous hours in the Louvres museum to copy paintings from old masters. There is a wonderful anecdote about his ability to copy or paint “in the spirit of”. One day, at the Café Guerbois where he was meeting the impressionist group (Manet, Monet, Renoir, Fantin-Latour, Cazin, Pissarro, Whistler and Zola), one of his friends bet with him that he could not paint a landscape in the manner of Corot. The next day, Degas came with two paintings: one by Corot and one he had painted during the night. Without any hesitation, his friends and colleagues pointed at the real Corot… which happened to be the one painted by Degas.

Degas had a vast culture: he could read books in Greek and Latin and showed a keen interest for the antiquities. He read the classics, but also Flaubert and Maupassant. He went regularly to the Opera in Paris. He painted in oil, watercolours and pastel. He also did some sculptures and prints. He was also an excellent photographer and used his photographs to capture the furtive movements of the ballerina at the opera house or the gallop of races horses that he painted over and over.

Race Horses in a Landscape, Edgar Degas, 1894, Pastel on paper, 47.9 x 62.9 cm (source: Wikimedia)

When he was young, Degas travelled the world, visiting America, Italy (Naples and Rome) where he did numerous drawings in churches and museums. During his life, Degas also travelled to Morocco, the Netherlands, Belgium and England.

Towards the end of his life, he stayed long hours in his studio and did not go out very much. He had harvested enough memories to feed his art. I believe his deficient sight had something to do with this. He lost partially his sight, leaving him in the fog, even if he was never totally blind. The idea of losing his sight must have driven in him a sense of urgency, the feeling that every day counted.

A search for perfection and a humble attitude towards his work led Degas all his life, as his niece testified:

“However, his working method consists in starting over and over; twenty times he draws a movement, he repeats the trials on canvas or paper. On one of his early works, La Source, painted for a ballet, he will still try to make some adjustments twenty years later, with charcoal and chalk!”

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