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Three Paintings by Degas

Singer with a Glove

Pastel on canvas, 1878 by Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917)

The Rehearsal

Oil on canvas, 1878 Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917)

Cotton Merchants in New Orleans

Oil on linen, 1873 by Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917)

There are three wonderful paintings from Degas’ mature period in the Harvard Art Collection, although Singer with a Glove, being painted in perishable pastel rather than oil, is unfortunately now too fragile to be shown as part of the Fogg’s display collection. Nonetheless it can be viewed on request, which is an experience in itself: the concept behind the preservation of art and how fantastically expensive it is to house and condition delicate artefacts intersects with all manner of issues around elitism and the way selective biases feed into the curation of cultural heritage. It’s a subject which is now a de rigueur issue for wokism to feed upon. Who is the curator? What are his or her cultural or ethnic predilections? Who is bankrolling the preservation? Which poor forgotten artist’s work is quietly fading and flaking away while the likes of titans such as Degas command the fixated attention of the art world, having been bestowed the white-glove and soft-light treatment?

Degas in particular stands as a potential flash-point in our current ‘culture wars’: it’s now generally accepted that he was a misanthropic curmudgeonly sexist (stringently against giving women suffrage) and an anti-Semite (eventually cutting all ties with his one-time Jewish friends and acquaintances). Equally alarming indictments could be made against the arguable sexual mores of Gauguin and Caravaggio – two random exemplars off the top of my head – but do you dare take a blade to genius? Do we really have the cold-stone hearts to do it? To do so risks evoking the worst puritanical wrath such as we associate with the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation and the Islamic State. What impact do these worrying disclosures have – a century and a quarter later – on our regard of Degas’ artistic merit? Does pre-knowing any of this really discolour our viewing of his work as it hangs before us? I’m afraid that given the obsession nowadays with ‘cancel culture’ or the propensity to re-evaluate singular achievement when any personality – even a long dead one – is found wanting in the rigid face of a newly defined social sensibility, it’s a wonder Singer with a Glove and others have not been turfed whole-scale into the trash dumpster.

Singer with a Glove

Then again, one would surely be certifiably insane to chuck $30 million into the garbage: capitalism is nothing if not the close-knit cousin of hypocrisy! Better to hold on to the asset value of the work and stash it out of sight in the basement or a bank vault, which is exactly what MOMA have done with the artists and pieces their prissy brigade of virtue-signallers have deemed too offensive for our prurient eyes. If we can generally accept that Degas as an artist, if not as a man, rightly solicits our admiration, then it’s at least to Harvard’s credit that his paintings still adorn the walls of their museums. As a matter of fact, so do their oils by Gauguin! Perhaps, it’s simply a matter of time?

Cynicism aside, you can instantly see why both Degas and Gauguin – who share the same wall space – are hot-tickets in any gallery. Their respective styles are instantly recognisable, as are Pissarro and van Gogh, and they seem to solicit your eager attention as soon as they are spotted, more so, for some reason, than the muted Monets and riotous Renoirs. It’s a personal response, but like the centrality of Picasso’s nearby masterpiece Mother and Child, the two Degas command immediate patronage. They have a noble and stately bearing in their frames, even though their subjects are anything but stagey or formal. This poised dichotomy between the magisterial and the banal promotes a tense alacrity within the viewer; some paintings you come upon slowly and reverently, the eye wanders across them with a certain studious solemnity, but the Degas seem to demand to be devoured at once in all their compact fullness. Unlike the sharp erotic discharge of an earlier work, Young Spartans Exercising, (1862) both The Rehearsal and Cotton Merchants in New Orleans contain little which is overtly sensual and yet are all the more remarkable for how readily they stir a kind of curious excitement.

Personally I think this has something to do with the superlative abilities Degas demonstrates as a draughtsman. Nearly half his output was apparently devoted to either ballet dancers or racing horses and his ability to depict movement, or rather to enliven the moving subject with personality, is quite astonishing. Again, he seems to have mastered the concept of the dichotomy: the kineticism of his subjects generates an insularity which is psychologically complex, a rapt state of human isolation, even though they often move in relation to other figures about them; they function as singular entities within a collective. Singer with a Glove both defies this trope and yet simultaneously engages with it: we see the lone singer captured in a moment of vocal physical exertion and yet we also have the feeling that the canvas is pervaded with the corresponding reaction of her audience; the action merely removed off-stage, out of sight, and yet still viscerally present. Several of his other paintings play with the idea of movement occurring as a disparate aspect to the main subject being depicted: he breaks a sense of linear unity intentionally only to reemphasise it by a generalised concentration of motion. For example, Musicians in an Orchestra (1872) focuses on the backs of a huddled group of musicians, entirely separate to the dancers they are playing for on stage, and yet the idea of theatricality ultimately unifies the two elements into a cohesive whole.

The Rehearsal

This stylistic treatment is apparent in The Rehearsal where the grouping of the ballet dancers intentionally defies any notion of choreography; a central group of four girls appear to perhaps be dancing together, while another four in the back form their own opposing couplings and one in the foreground has her back to them all. One of the girls in the background also has her back turned away from us, forming a counterpoint to her peer. The violinist, meanwhile, is the only male figure depicted and plays the tune to which his charges dance: there is undeniable tension present between male and female socialisation, another aspect so arresting in Young Spartans. This element of patriarchy hints at a narrative which is highly ambiguous, as is the apparent incompleteness of the painting itself (the walls and floors for example) despite what is otherwise a tightly rendered composition. The ‘rehearsal’ as a subject is one Degas frequently chose to paint, emphasising the professional as opposed to mere social status of his sitters. There is also an undeniable sense of atavism in both Singer with a Glove and The Rehearsal – the physiognomy of respective singer and dancers aptly reveal the discipline they are undertaking. While this may seem obvious, to some even a cliché, it could be argued that a trait of Degas’ portraiture is that it ‘reads’ from outer to inner ideation.

Cotton Merchants in New Orleans

Degas once remarked that, “in art, nothing should look like chance, not even movement.” These three paintings embody this mantra. Cotton Merchants in New Orleans has a frazzled sort of chaos to it befitting of a cramped, somewhat rowdy, pragmatic establishment. The unusual viewpoint is another stylistic feature particular to Degas: there is something off-kilter about the angle of perspective he has elected to take; it is cropped and framed rather awkwardly. As such the three figures yet again are shown in attitudes of disassociation and yet we cannot help feel that there is a buoyancy underpinning the enterprise at play here: the wheels of consumerism are busy turning, each actor a player contributing to a larger schematic reality. Interestingly, Cotton Merchants is painted on linen and so has a softer, suppler texture to it, aptly accentuated by the earthy muted palette and the dustier render of the paint. The choice of linen as a material for a painting about cotton may just be an intentional jest which at last shows Degas in a more upbeat light.

Images courtesy of the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.


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