You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Reluctant Butterfly

The fierce development of Edgar Degas.

Of the great impressionists. Degas probably had the worst eyes. His myopia was severe enough to excuse him from infantry duty; by his 40s he was virtually blind in his right eye; and by the 1890s he donned corrective spectacles blacked-out except for a small slit in the left lens. Complaints about la vue recur in his letters, and late in life he wrote to a friend, "I'll soon be a blind man. Where there are no fish, one should not pretend to be a fisherman." He was also, of this epochal group, the most color-shy, the least (not counting Toulouse-Lautrec) outdoorsy and sunny, and the finest draftsman—the only one whose pencil and charcoal drawings rank for delicate precision and three-dimensionality with those of the Renaissance. He studied under a disciple of Ingres, Louis Lamothe, and copied masterworks not only as a student but throughout his artistic life; of the young men who became the impressionists, he was the least rebellious, both in regard to his haut-bourgcois family and to the art preserved in the European museums.

Degas has been cast, in the docudrama of art history, as the memorializer of certain beloved, incessantly posterized subjects—ballet dancers and bathing women foremost, with horses and milliners affectionate also-rans. The visitor, however, to the huge Degas retrospective that New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has established in 12 of its galleries (after showings earlier this year in Paris and Ottawa) will have a long slog before he comes to something easy to love. There was a thick cocoon of umbrageous caution and dry wit that this particular butterfly had to wriggle out of.

The first galleries contain meticulous student sketches and those first whiffs of the peculiar Degas perfume, his early family portraits, including several studies of himself wearing a low-brimmed hat and a translucent mask of shadow. Unlike Rembrandt, he did not go on to record his face at every life-stage; he stopped in his 20s. But he continued to paint the members of his large family,with its branches in Naples and New Orleans, and his own dark heavy-lidded eyes and plump lips echo through their faces. His large painting of his aunt, Laura Bellelli, with her husband and two daughters, and the joint portrait of his sister, Therese Morbilli, and her husband are among Degas's somber masterpieces, memorable not least for the suggestion of domestic unease and estrangement that infects the slightly unsettled poses. Both paintings achieve their beauty almost entirely in neutral tints; the Morbillis are all gray and dark brown, with even the flesh tones subdued and deathly, and a great central spill of darkness dominates the Bellelli group, stark against the white of the girl's aprons and the blue-green of the wallpaper. This blue-green seems, as it ranges in his work from a soft aqua to an incandescent turquoise, a trace of Degas's soul, the one color that he loved.

The early rooms contain a number of ambitious salon pieces, addressing subjects from myth and history; through these paintings we can feel the blood ebbing from 19th-century academic painting. If not absolutely lifeless. The Daughter of Jephthah and Semiramis Building Babylon are certainly stilted, with their jigsaw pieces of "local color" in the preimpressionist style and their populous events inscrutably swathed in antiquity. Semiramis occasioned some of Degas's finest drawings—pencil and watercolor studies of draped female forms, each fold scrupulously explored—and prophesied trends to come by containing a well anatomized horse and by grouping most of its figures tightly in the center of the wide canvas, like people in a transparent elevator. Scene of War in the Middle Ages, his last attempt at historical painting, is a work of monstrous strangeness, illustrating no known happening but venting the artist's desire to show a number of female nudes in contorted poses, being cruelly slain as they are by an androgynous medieval bowman who, in a preliminary sketch, has breasts. The work seems psychologically as well as visually ugly, and it is something of a triumph of sublimation that the slain females return, ennobled though still contorted, as the pastel bathing women of later decades.

Of the historical paintings, only Young Spartans is painless to look at, savoring as it so nakedly does of the studio: the brown young bodies, surrounded by a vague and shadowless outdoors, crouch and stretch purely for the benefit of the artist, who has left a number of legs in double outline. The painting was dear to Degas, and he kept it prominently displayed in his studio and worked at it off and on for 20 years. He was an incorrigible retoucher. He complained that an oil painting is never finished, and in more than one case took back a painting from a buyer and in effect ruined it with revision.

An unevenness of rendering sometimes betrays his restless methods; in his portrait of his Bellelli cousins, for instance, Giulia exists on a much ghostlier plane than Giovanna, as if a Redon and a Gainsborough shared the same canvas. And even in the admired painting from the same mid-1890s, Woman Leaning Near a Vase of Flowers, the flowers are painstakingly searched out, petal by petal, by another hand than that which casually dashes off the woman, her blurred gaze and sketchy brown dress front. Racehorses (1875-78) was reworked to the point that no single atmosphere encloses the superimposed figures, and we seem to be underwater. Degas was a fusser, a bricoleur, a studio assembler of effects. Even those works of his that seem most spontaneous and on the spot, the monotypes of brothels, had to be, from their technical nature, studio artifacts, and are unreal in their ubiquitous nudity and lack of individualization. A brilliant image like The Song of the Dog was worked up with gouache and pastel over a monotype base, and the paper was enlarged by the addition of strips—a frequent Degas refinement. In Dancers in the Wing ten separate bits of paper have been counted.

Degas's most brilliant and characteristic achievement might be described as the patient invention of the snapshot, before the camera itself was technically able to arrest motion and record the poetry of visual accident. Equipped with a collage of sketches and the compositional example of Japanese prints, he began, in the early 1870s, to make pictures truly novel in their off-center foci, the cropping action of their edges, their unexpected points of vantage and dramatic perspectives, the electric violence of their lighting.

The discovery of stage lighting, as a means of organizing a painting, effectuated an intensification of his vision, favoring his virtuosity at drawing and reducing color to a matter of highlights. In The Orchestra of the Opera, the orchestra in the foreground is a dark mass of naturalistic portraits—each musician personally identifiable—and the background of actual performance is impressionistically splashed across the top, the dancers wittily cut off at their necks. The Ballet from "Rohert le Diahle" uses the same scheme with more concentrated anecdotal effect: a lot is happening in the overlapped silhouettes of audience and orchestra—one man is tilting his opera glasses upward, another man is blowing the stem of his oboe—while on the stage blurred white forms, out of focus in paint, are staging a crisis. This slanted staginess, this multiangled jumble of differently directed energies, animates not only the gaudy magic of the famous ballet pastels, but supplies the nervous energy in the paintings of jockeys and horses and in such melodramatic interiors as The Song Rehearsal and, in more stately fashion, Portraits in an Office, with its cast of 14 different men engaged in the cotton trade. The odd and murderous arrows of his medieval scene of war have become the darting arrows of overdirected modern attention.

As the viewer makes his way through the middle galleries of this show, where Degas's charming theatricality asserts itself, one is aware not only of the figures represented but, with a strange intensity, of the rooms. Portraits in an Office with admirable thoroughness gives us the shelves, chairs, and windowed partitions of a New Orleans business office; The Song Rehearsal makes vivid the ocher walls and, with an architectural clarity, the moldings and trim of its large chamber; the stately bare spaces of the Dance Class in its several versions have a palpable, somewhat desolating presence; and a slightly earlier painting like the enigmatic Interior makes the room—whose odd immensity is left unfilled by its slender furniture and two preoccupied inhabitants—the main presence. In more intimate works like The Pedicure and Hortense Valpingon the furniture and wallpaper mingle with the young female subjects in the forefront of our attention. The environment, we are invited to understand, is part of the picture, and with the same subtlety Degas's paintings of laundresses and milliners and entertainers imply an enveloping society, a world of work and display.

Degas's social realism disdains glamorization and also pity, of the kind that Daumier's paintings of the working class invoked. Degas's whores are fat women well past first bloom, stold and bored in their trade, and his ballet dancers are bony girls, professional or studying to be, drooping with fatigue offstage and helplessly yawning. He catches them in awkward moments, just as he likes to show, in little wax statues, horses rearing awkwardly, in off-balance poses that can have been maintained for less than a second. There is, in Degas, a democracy of vision that gives the awkward and the ugly equal representation with the grace and the beautifull; he anticipated a camera's capabilities in his cropped and eclipsed assemblages and also its dispassion, its acceptance of what it sees. The impressionist revolution, which began in Manet's trying to be faithful to his impression of reflections in water, has in detached, reactionary Degas its humanist, the least didactic of social observers.

The leg-weary traverser of the 12 Metropolitan galleries will encounter by mid-journey celebrated examples of Degas's wit and charm--The Green Dancer, seen from above, her tulle skirt spread in apotheosis of that pet blue-green color; and The Little Fourteen-year-old Dancer, the most poignant and pert of great statues. But he must wait until Gallery Nine for splendor. Degas's large pastel studies of women bathing were, we are told, the sensation of the last impressionist show, in 1886, and sociologically reflected a general increase of private bathrooms in the middle-class home. This scrupulous realist found, posing his models getting in and out of tin tubs, the perfect modern excuse for the female nude, which hitherto was encountered in mythology, which had become ridiculous, or in lovemaking, which was indecent.


Bathing created another occasion when women took off their clothes, and artists before Degas had seized upon it. But even in a contemporary like Renoir, the bathing beauty takes on a goddesslike glow and immobility, posed pink against the timeless sea. Degas's bathers are splendid by virtue only of the forms God gave them and the vivacious, glowing pastels in which Degas renders them. Chalk on paper has a slight graininess that answers to the texture of skin; his paintings of bathers are not quite so powerful, though even bigger in scale. He shows the women stepping into a tub, stepping out into a towel held by a servant, stooping to scrub or dry their feet, squatting and sponging the back of their necks.

The poses are angular and sometimes awkward, but even when a stoopedover position thrusts the buttocks at us, the representation's sexual content remains submissive to the larger natural fact that this is an animal body cleansing and grooming itself, in an atmosphere of silence and peace, of private holiday. The bodies loom solid and even plump; the plumpest of them, in The Morning Bath, was later nicknamed La Boulangere (The Baker's Wife), and part of the greatness of this series is that these magnificent apparitions are always tied, by the tubs and pitchers and towels around them, to settings of homely middle-class domesticity.

Degas, who never married and kept no known mistress, was thought, by Manet among others, to be impotent; but these bathing women excite him. His excitement shows in the freedom and variety of his color; in the ardor of his line, softer but no less elegant than Ingres; in the rapacious vigor and variety of his strokes, which in some of the later nudes from the mid-1890s—one drying her feet and another lying on her stomach--show as scribbles and furious parallel rows that resolve into skin tint only at a significant distance. The Seated Bather Drying Herself of 1895 is perhaps the loveliest of all, the back twisted half into shadow and plunged into a nest of clothy patches of color. In a virtual expressionist fury Degas began to steam and melt his pastels and press them into a kind of chalky impasto, and to etch the thickened surface with knives and needles.

Degas's late works experimented with roughness of execution, never losing his underlying integrity of drawing. The portrait of Rose Caron is almost faceless, yet it "reads" as a real presence. Some of his colored monotypes called landscapes are amazingly abstract. Only in the Russian Dancer series of 1899 did he reach beyond, for me, the useful limits of violence. Taking tracings of the same pose of wide-skirted Russian dancers, like pages of a coloring book, he filled in the outlines with frenzied colors, as if in a jubilant return to the "local color" of the academic tradition, and produced coarsely decorative images moving mostly in their bravery. They remind one of Monet's wildly chromatic studies of haystacks and cathedral fronts, with the difference that Monet was working from nature and actual light, where Degas was returning to the studio of imagination, which in the coming century would again dominate the painter's art.

John Updike's most recent book is S, a novel (Knopf).

By John Updike