In 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. The picturedealer Ambroise Vollard records this significant remark made by Degas: 'The air which one breathes in a picture is not the same as the air one breathes outside'. He did not seek chance beauty improvised by Nature, he preferred that created by man. He preferred the artificial light of the theatre to sunlight. He was interested in the human presence, and never treated the silhouettes of his figures in the casual manner of the other Impressionists. In that way his art was not a repudiation of the Classicism glorified by Ingres, but actually an extension of that formula enriched by new experiences. All these points, on which he differed with his friends, are not, in fact, sufficient to exclude him from the Impressionist movement -- in the first place, because Degas himself decided otherwise (in fact, he participated, from the beginning, in a number of their exhibitions, at a time when this participation meant taking a stand, a declaration of war); but, above all, it should be understood that although he had his differences of opinion with Monet, Sisley and Pissarro, he did not oppose the new school but, with Cézanne, completed it. Cézanne, it will be remembered, wanted to make of Impressionism a solid painting like that of the museums. One might say that Degas dreamed of creating a museum painting as living and modern as that of the Impressionists.
Whereas Monet, Sisley and Pissarro sought the maximum possibilities of colour, and Cézanne did the same with respect to volume, Degas cherished an equally tenacious passion for drawing. 'I am a colourist with line', he said. He drew, and colour came only to complete, by its material and fixative quality, what the drawing had caught of the dynamic reality. Drawing was, for him, the result of swift observation. It was necessary to see quickly, and the mind must be able to select; painting was the result of a series of verifications, and did not require the same inventive qualities. Slowly, however, he began to discover the wider limits of colour. He began to seek in it something more than local tone, and the means of characterizing a volume. From then on colour brightened the body surfaces, caught the light on the filmy tutus of the dancing girls, and produced some of the most glamorous and fairylike scenes of the close of the nineteenth century. These dancers, these women at their toilet, are certainly neither intelligent nor beautiful. They are commonplace, often vulgar in their physique and in their poses, but Degas strips them of matter, picking out only the essential rhythms of their movements, making beauty itself spring from the banality or vulgarity of their gestures. He does it so naturally, so completely, that he never gives the impression of resorting to artifice in order to transfigure reality. His was a more complex, intellectual creation than those achieved by most of the other Impressionists.
One thing is certain: if Degas, starting from Classicism, felt isolated in the midst of those who claimed to have broken with the past, he was still more opposed to those who wished to preserve it with a dismal and narrow fidelity. The deep hostility and spirit of revolt that made Degas reject all the trite academic formulas transmitted by the École des Beaux-Arts, can never be sufficiently stressed. This stubborn search for the new, the hitherto unattempted, was with Degas more a means than an end. He wanted to cast off all that was conventional, trite or commonplace, in order to transcribe reality without having anything impede or distort his vision. Degas is really the first artist in whom indifference to all that was not real was carried to its extreme. His attitude is similar to that of the zoologist, or the physiologist. He outlines a human attitude as a doctor describes a clinical case. It is therefore Naturalism that transformed this traditional artist (as he was at first) into one of the most daring innovators in the transcription of the scenes of modern life. But this search, however persistent, was never provocative. Breaking with the accepted conventions, his Portrait of the Bellelli Family, which he painted when he was only twenty-six, contains a real stage setting, which must have surprised his contemporaries somewhat. Degas portrayed M. Bellelli with his back turned, seated in an armchair, an arrangement which was hardly in conformity with custom. In his pictures of this period, no matter how traditional they might be, he seemed to be already avoiding static forms, seeking instead the effect of photographic instantancity, which was to become characteristic of all his work. His Cotton Market in New Orleans ( 1873) is a synthesis of his art over a period of years: audacity in the placing of the subject, very important foreground, scrupulously exact draughtsmanship, and a very solid, though somewhat conventional perspective. Without a doubt this very need to represent life led him to paint his characters at work, such "laundreases, milliners ( 1880-1884), surprising them in characteristic attitudes. For several years before then dancers had revealed to him the resources of the human body, and shown him what an artist who cared about draughtsmanship could find in the acts of everyday life. It is only natural that the name of Degas should conjure up, for the less informed, dancers in tutus, practising their points, tying their shoe ribbons, or revolving about the stage from strange perspectives with oddly foreshortened bodies. For these dancers represent Degas's decisive contribution to the Impressionist movement. They represent the very movement of perpetually changing reality surprised, immobilized -- that obsession of the artists of the period. However, the reality seen by Degas is his own: anxious to express the maximum of life, he selected aspects of reality that had never been observed before, and were thus more striking in their truth. His nudes -- women at their toilet -- reveal attitudes that do not appear very natural, the limbs being contracted in awkward gestures. For the same reason he tried to get from light effects which were contrary to natural lighting; he tried to capture the light of the footlights, which rises from the floor, inverts shadows, transforms faces, and brings gestures out in unusual relief. Degas went beyond. this stage in the expression of movement and took up sculpture: his statuettes of horses and dancers became a real arabesque in space, and the analogy of gesture between dancer and horse, the same way of nervously extending the leg, reveals his keen and exacting observation.
If Degas belongs to Impressionism, it is by his mental disposition rather than his technique, by his clear refusal to accept a conventional world. Study give him a technique; the spectacle of reality gave him a sense of life. Degas appeared to divine the potentialities of the modern world to a far greater extent than his friends did. It is no mere accident to find in his work a forecast of new ways of disposing figures on the canvas, and unexpected angles of vision which, many years later, photography and the cinema were to use. His views seen from above, his method of depicting the main figure in a portrait off centre, of giving the foreground unexpected importance in relation to the subject as a whole, of putting the emphasis on an inert and accessory detail in order to accentuate, by contrast, the expression of life in a face -- all these innovations correspond exactly to what the camera gives us today. In Le Secret Professionnel Jean Cocteau writes: 'I have seen photographs that Degas enlarged himself, on which he worked directly in pastel, amazed by the arrangement, the foreshortenings and the distortion of the foreground'. But that is reducing too much to chance the part played by the artist, without taking into account the sharpness of his magnificent drawing, which goes far beyond instantaneous photography, no matter how exceptional that may be. These new possibilities interested him only in so far as they enabled him to emphasize the everyday action. Degas always refused to paint from Nature. Although, in his work, he gives an impression of spontaneity, of having captured a gesture or pose at a dress rehearsal in the theatre, or on the racecourse, his pictures are all studio productions, the results of long hours of hard work under conditions where, unlike the artist who works from Nature, he is not limited by time. His painstaking drawings were made from memory, or from 'notes'. At a time when some painters were proclaiming their desire to depict their passing impressions, Degas's profound and patient observation produced masterpieces full of the feeling of life.
He brought the same research approach to the problems of technique, and there, too, his classical sense, far from limiting him, impelled him to seek that mastery of his craft which the painters of the past had had. Though he used the most varied mediums, he found pastel the one that suited him best. Sometimes he used different mediums in the same picture, or else he would superimpose costs of pastel in order to obtain, as in oil-painting, a play of transparencies between the strokes. Towards the end of his life, his sight failing, he developed a preference for working in charcoal, multiplying the sharp, nervous strokes, often enhancing them with pastel. Degas is as indispensable to the history of Impressionism as Renoir, Monet, Cézanne. Even if his work has had less influence than that of Cézanne, it contains enough mystery to enable it to be rediscovered one day for reasons which we do not suspect, and which will, perhaps, be far from those for which we admire him today.