Exhibition on Screen: Degas - Passion For Perfection (2018) - full transcript

A new "Exhibition on Screen" exploration of the French impressionist artist Edgar Degas.

"It seems to me that if one wants to be a serious artist today,

and create an original little niche for oneself,

or at least ensure that one preserves

the highest degree of innocence of character,

one must constantly immerse oneself in solitude.

There is too much


It is as if paintings were made like speculations on the stock markets,

out of the friction among people eager for gain.

The heart is an instrument which goes rusty if it isn't used.

Is it possible to be a heartless artist?"

I think what makes Degas fascinating

and really very alive to a 21st-century audience

is that he is more interested in process than in the end result.

We wanted to ensure that this exhibition of Degas

was like no other.

We also wanted to explore fresh themes

and look at Degas' work in a slightly different angle.

You can see his kind of, the intellectual understanding

that underpins his work.

Particularly his curiosity for the work of earlier ages.

He's certainly moved very much into the light as a personality.

Degas, I think, cultivated an "unknowability".

He disliked people writing about him and his art.

And much of his art that we see today was never intended to be seen.

It came from his studio after his death.

I think Degas was quite a strategist

in terms of his relationship to his audience

and his market.

It's like he wanted to keep all the work around him.

And work quietly away on this thing,

I really think of as his research, you know.

It's like he hones the body of work, his focus on particular subjects

to a narrower and narrower extreme,

in order to push through into some new territory.

You know, honestly, when I circle back to the group

of ambitious 19th-century French painters,

I do often keep coming back to Degas.

He is endlessly surprising

and infinite in his experimentation

and his experimental spirit in all of the media.

A little bit of poetry and sculpture, and again in printmaking.

An absolutely amazing printmaker. Pastel painting, oil painting.

Degas is quite innovative

because he really brings us into a, kind of, an intimate scene,

so you feel part of the picture by being in front of it,

and almost participating as a viewer to the scene.

And what he paints is so fresh.

That can only bring,

first of all, I think it can only bring you happiness.

And it's always amazing to look at Degas' pictures

because Degas women are not pretty or beautiful,

well prepared,

they are just here as touch of colours, of shapes.

It's almost like a way that Degas can use the form, the shapes, the colours

and put them all together.

It seems really important to him

that he took these risks with accepted practice.

Putting at risk the physical integrity of the work at times.

And I think he was very modern in that respect.

Any exhibition about an artist is just a beginning.

You start with a structure, you have things that you want to show.

You have ideas that you want to articulate.

But it's in the process of the installation,

and often during the course of the exhibition, that you learn so much more.

The way one work speaks to another becomes very telling

and sheds a lot more light on Degas' practice and his process.

The Fitzwilliam museum is fortunate

in that it has the largest and most representative collection

of works by Degas in any British institution.

This is largely due to a particular series of collectors

who generously gave works by Degas

in a variety of media.

Thus we can show not just paintings and pastels and drawings,

but we can show prints of a variety of traditions, monotypes.

And we also have, as well as bronze sculpture by Degas,

we have actually three original wax statuettes.

The Fitzwilliam Museum was founded in 1816

from the will of Richard, 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam,

and is the principal museum of art and archaeology

of the University of Cambridge in England.

The great strengths of the collection are, I suppose, Western painting,

old master painting and prints.

But also, we have extraordinary illuminated manuscripts,

musical scores, and archival material.

The collections of the museum, I sometimes describe them

as a sort of a miniature Louvre.

Very good Egyptian, Greek, Roman antiquities.

furniture, silver, ceramics,


And strange things, like an armoury.

Upstairs, we have a very fine and representative collection

of Western painting.

The tradition is to display the pictures alongside sculpture, furniture,

and decorative arts of the period,

so they form almost like a, kind of,

the atmosphere is rather like a country house.

Indeed, from the earliest period, from the 1930s,

it was intended that the museum should be a civilising place

for the students and other visitors to, kind of, take inspiration from.

In every sense of the word, it's a very sort of encyclopaedic museum.

The main idea behind the conception of the show

was unashamedly to profile Cambridge's amazing collections of work by Degas.

The subtitle of the exhibition, "Passion for Perfection",

is drawn from Ambroise Vollard's recollections of Degas

and in the context that he said it,

he really meant it defensively to respond to those who had thought

that Degas was somebody who,

in treating the same subject again and again,

or a variance of the same composition,

that there was some lack of imagination.

No, Vollard said, it was because he was driven by a passion for perfection

as part of what he called "an ongoing pictorial research".

In the context of the exhibition, that statement really is a question mark.

Was this what drove Degas?

Or was it, as some other of his contemporaries said,

a neurotic inability to satisfy himself?

Or, a century after his death,

was it really something that we can now align more

with what we associate with certain types of modern art

and the non finito, this lack of need, or lack of will to finish,

to ever find anything that's complete.

"A certain picture of Degas exists,

almost legendary, mythical.

It is the artist as a recluse,

voluntarily leading a churlish life.

Always working, searching, almost always dissatisfied.

He kept the greater part of his art hidden in boxes

out of which he scarcely ever took anything,

except what he was forced to sell to enable him to live.

Degas was not one of those oral improvisers

whose inspiration dries up at the sight of a pen.

He spoke as he wrote,

with the same sparkling and savoury power,

the same clarity.

Down to the last brief, sad notes of the final years,

there still persists the old vivacity, the character, the line."

What we know about him, we know through sometimes friends,

sometimes acquaintances, second-hand,

and he was the master of the epigram.

He tended to make pronouncements that, on analysis, don't quite fit.

So, those sorts of things make him very easily misunderstood.

"It is true, isn't it, my dear Moreau,

that there is a way of making light, beauty, feeling,

line and colour out of a lot of love for what one does,

out of the desire to learn

and a deep conviction of the excellence of painting, as Vasari said?"

Edgar Degas was born in Paris to an upper middle class family

and was the eldest of five children.

When he became an adult, he changed his name from De Gas

back to its original form, Degas,

believing it to be less pretentious.

Degas' father, Auguste, came from merchant gentry

and ran a small family bank, established in Naples and Florence.

Degas' mother, Celestine Musson,

was a French Creole born in New Orleans.

She died when Degas was only 13.

Degas, from the age of about 11,

became a boarder at one of the most prestigious schools in Paris,

the Lyc?e Louis le Grand,

and it was there that he met some of the young men who would be lifelong friends.

He was also there when he first learned,

as part of a very well-funded,

both practical, but intellectual background,

part of that, he learned to draw

from casts, but also from engravings.

And the year that he graduated,

also signed on to become a copyist in the Biblioth?que nationale,

then called the Biblioth?que imp?riale, and in the Louvre.

He was originally intended by his father to go in for a career in law

and he signed on to do that,

but actually never, ever, went anywhere with it.

And by 1855, he then passes the exams and enters the ?cole des beaux-arts,

as a student of one of the most prestigious art schools in Paris,

and perhaps in Europe.

"I asked Degas, how is a painter to learn his m?tier?

'He should copy the masters, and recopy them', he replied.

'And after he has given every evidence of being a good copyist,

he might then reasonably be allowed to do a radish, perhaps, from nature.'"

Degas' earliest hero was Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres,

the great draughtsman,

who was one of the most distinguished artists

in mid-19th-century France,

along, of course, with his great rival, Delacroix.

What was very marking for Degas, was that he actually met Ingres.

He met him in 1855 through a school friend, really,

whose father owned what is now called The Valpin?on Bather,

a beautiful curvaceous view of the back of a lady,

apparently in an Oriental bathing setting.

Very interesting that it's a bather that Degas found most compelling

in Ingres' work.

He would repeat to others and write down what Ingres had said to him

when he was an aspiring artist,

"To draw lines, young man, to draw lots of lines,

and that's the way you'll become a great artist."

And it's unquestionable that Degas did become, like...

like Ingres, one of the greatest draughtsmen,

certainly of the 19th century.

"I was at his house once.

I had a letter of introduction to him.

I can't tell you how excited I was at the prospect.

To think of meeting the great Ingres!

Just as I was leaving, he was taken with a dizzy spell

and began to reel.

Fortunately, I was near enough to catch him before he fell."

Degas lasted for not more than a couple of terms

before he really took his art training into his own hands,

and went to spend three years in Italy.

"If one wants to travel alone,

one must visit areas full of works of art.

Boredom soon overcomes me when I am contemplating nature.

I feel remorse for having seen so many beautiful things already.

Everything breathes an atmosphere of prayer.

Everything is beautiful.

The details. The whole.

I would rather do nothing

than do a rough sketch without having looked at anything.

My memories will do better."

Through his travels in Italy,

Degas encountered a wide range of classical antiquities,

in the form of sculpture, mosaics, and wall paintings,

as well as works by the most celebrated

painters and sculptors of the Renaissance,

making copies in notebooks as an aide-m?moire.

When he returned to Paris in 1860,

Degas found a spacious studio and started to work intensely.

He made many careful drawings of historic paintings and sculptures,

often frequenting the Louvre and other institutions.

He began a series of large paintings with historical subject matter

that demonstrated a developing fusion of traditional observation

and his own ideas.

I think he felt ambitious on behalf

of this tradition that dated back to the 17th century.

And the feeling that he was getting and that many of the critics

and the young artists were getting in the 1860s

that that tradition was kind of petering out

and that there was something called "modernity"

that required a new form and a new kind of visual expression,

that Degas was committed to meeting this challenge.

It's very interesting to wonder about what his life was like at that stage.

His family is terribly worried about him.

He doesn't get out, he's in the studio all the time.

He has no life.

He is focusing very rigorously

on trying to produce works which will make him a name.

It was around this time that he started painting

one of his early masterpieces, The Bellelli Family,

a group portrait of his aunt Laure and her family in Italy.

Laure is dressed in black and mourning the death of her father,

shown in a portrait on the back wall.

The Baron Bellelli is a journalist in exile for his nationalist views

and sits apart with his back to us.

Their daughters, Giulia and Giovanna, are poised around their mother.

When you're talking about a portrait, there's bound to be

a degree of realism or naturalism or whatever you want to call it.

He's introducing, intentionally,

the sense of conflict in the family relations,

which normally, in portraiture, you would gloss over.

You would not want to alert your audience

to the fact that there are clearly tensions between husband and wife.

And he clearly sympathises with his aunt,

the standing family female figure.

Whereas his uncle

has his back to us.

And I think that what's radical about this painting,

as both a family composition, but also a portrait,

is the way in which Degas chooses to highlight

not the happy family,

but actually to suggest to us

that there's something really quite unpleasant going on here.

The main female figure, his aunt,

is on one side of the canvas and then it divides in two.

And on the right side of the canvas, is the uncle.

And the younger daughter, who is clearly divided

between her mother and her father, who sort of bridges that gap.

But basically, it's a painting of two halves.

Various gazes in the painting are obviously really quite crucial.

The only engagement is with one of the children, visually.

Eye contact.

So the sense of unease is very powerful.

"Make portraits of people in typical, familiar poses,

being sure, above all, to give their faces

the same kind of expression as their bodies.

Thus, if laughter typifies an individual,

make her laugh.

There are, of course,

feelings which one can not convey out of propriety,

as portraits are not intended for us painters alone."

"He recalls the manner ingenious of Holbein in his portraits.

And nowhere more strictly than in his portrait of his father

listening to Pagans, the celebrated singer and guitarist.

The musician sits in the foreground singing out of the picture.

Upon the black clothes, the yellow instrument

is drawn sharply.

The square jaws, the prominent nostrils, the large eyes,

in a word, all the racial characteristics of the Southern singer,

are set down with that incisive, that merciless force,

which is Holbein."

Until the mid-1860s,

copying provided Degas with one of the most direct ways of observing

and developing his skills as an artist.

But he also repeatedly emphasised the importance of being able

to draw on a well-trained visual memory bank.

Versed in literature and the classics,

Degas embarked on a series of history paintings

that included Young Spartans Exercising,

and the curious Alexander and Bucephalus,

which remained unfinished and unresolved.

Then, in 1865, he completed

Scene of War in the Middle Ages,

and submitted to the Acad?mie des beaux-arts' Annual Salon.

It's a very curious thing to have submitted as your salon debut.

Of all these attempts at painting subjects on historical themes,

some of them on a vast scale, almost two metres wide,

he only ever exhibited one of them, the Scene of War in the Middle Ages.

It's an oil painting, but it doesn't look like an oil painting

as we know it.

It's an oil painting using a medium of essence

where the oil is sort of diluted to a point with white spirit

that he then applies it to paper, not to canvas.

And it sinks in and creates this incredibly opaque quality

so it's more like a fresco painting, or even like a pastel,

which he, in fact, exhibited in a room of pastels.

That painting was one which, of course,

held a great deal of importance for Degas.

We know that he kept it in his studio, he didn't sell it.

It was completely overlooked by critics.

It's a strange painting.

It's a painting in which you can see the elements he studied very carefully

and they're placed all over, not the canvas, but the piece of paper.

And it's got this very odd, deep-frozen effect,

which for a subject which is about rape, pillage,

setting fire to an entire town in the background,

is an extraordinary approach to treating any theme,

never mind one of such violence.

In 1862, Degas met Manet, ?douard Manet, at the Louvre.

They were both working as copyists.

And they had a very interesting dynamic,

a very friendly at times and, in the end, very unfriendly relationship,

and a sort of competitive relationship.

Manet really introduced him to the circle of artists

that we now think of as the Impressionists

in the caf? scenes of the 9th arrondissement,

so artists like Pissarro,


and Monet.

"From the first meeting, Manet invited me to join him

every evening in a caf? at the Batignolles

where he and his friends would gather to talk at the end of a day

spent at their studios.

I would meet there Fantin-Latour and C?zanne,

Degas, who arrived shortly afterwards from Italy,

the art critic Duranty,

Emile Zola who was just starting off in the literary world,

and a number of others.

I would take Sisley, Bazille and Renoir.

There was nothing more interesting than these discussions

with their perpetual differences of opinion.

Our minds and souls were stimulated."

It's there, too, that Degas meets a lot of writers,

writers who would be supportive of the Realist movement to which he subscribed.

Realism, with a capital R, at the time was an artistic movement

which had begun around 1848 with artists like Millet and Courbet,

taken up then by the great artist Manet,

who was already working in a more Realist style

when Degas was still working in history painting, effectively.

I think the trouble with categories like Realism,

Impressionism, Post-Impressionism,

in a way they're very convenient for us historically, looking back,

and for organising exhibitions and so forth,

but actually at the time,

the whole issue would have been much more nuanced and complex.

Degas saw himself as an independent, rather than an Impressionist.

He didn't like the title "Impressionist" that got associated,

in 1874 and thereafter, with the Impressionist exhibitions.

He wanted the group to be called "the Independents".

Impressionism tends to be associated with outdoors,

landscape painting, plein air,

with immediacy, with direct painting, with no changes, with spontaneity,

which of course is, in itself, in fact really problematic.

But for Degas the opposite was the case.

He was someone who was,

not just because he was grounded in the academic tradition,

but in terms of his personality, his... the artist he was,

was someone for whom things were never finished.

Things went on and on and on, he worked over and over and over.

He said himself that no one was less spontaneous than he.

In a sense, he's associated with the Impressionist group

for strategic reasons, for friendship reasons,

for, in a sense, artistic avant-garde reasons,

the sense that he was involved in a new movement.

He had a lot of new things to say, so to associate himself with a group

where he could exhibit and sell his work

and make his name as a radical independent,

was very convenient, was very useful.

Degas made his first studies of horses in 1861

while visiting Paul Valpin?on, a childhood friend in Normandy.

Scene from the Steeplechase is a highly dramatic painting,

depicting the perilous nature of what was a relatively new

but dangerous sporting event.

Like Manet, Degas chose a rather generic title

as if he were merely documenting a scene in a realist way,

drawing more emphasis to the drama and action.

The first collectors must have been impressed

by the way Degas put on the canvas

the intensity of the instant and the freshness of the colours.

It's bright green, nice, sweet pink, purple,

very flashy colours, so it's almost like a fresh, new look

on what one could be able to see at the time.

When they are in a race,

Degas always chooses the moment right after or right before the race,

where you see the animal in preparation,

where you are the spectator,

without having them know that you're watching them.

Degas makes a note to himself

about the importance of painting his own time.

That's very much a sort of leitmotif, if not battle cry,

of artists at this period

where he began to meet a number of musicians and composers

who were attached to the Paris Opera,

bassoon players and a Catalan composer called Dihau.

And so, he was beginning to enter this world

which would provide much of the subject matter

for the Degas that we now know.

With the onset of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870,

Degas interrupted his artistic practice to volunteer for the National Guard.

He was posted to Normandy,

where training exercises revealed the poor state of his eyesight.

He was re-assigned to Paris as a lieutenant in the Garrison Artillery

until the French surrendered in 1871.

"I have just had and still have

a spot of weakness and trouble in my eyes.

It caught me at Chatou by the edge of the water in full sunlight

whilst I was doing a watercolour.

It made me lose nearly three weeks,

being unable to read or work or go out much,

trembling all the time lest I should remain like that."

I've never really had perfect eyesight,

and from the age of about 12 was short-sighted,

and then through a kind of adolescent vanity

spent most of my teenage years in a kind of myopic haze,

quite impressionist really.

But, curiously, I think that makes you very attentive

to how we see things in general,

and there's different degrees to which vision might change

in different circumstances.

Degas overcame the shortcomings of his own vision,

to arrive at a form where he moved into a kind of tactility.

The late pastels come quite close to suggesting the kind of sensations,

the experience of touching a body, touching material.

It brings into play the other senses besides sight and vision.

Very fortunately, I don't suffer from irredeemably damaged eyesight

in the way Degas did later on.

I think there are people who have clinically perfect eyesight,

are strangely blind to certain aspects of the experience of artworks.

That they don't actually encounter the real experience

of seeing what's happening in a painting or a sculpture in front of their eyes

because perhaps they're led by what they anticipate seeing

by the narrative, by the language, by what they're being told about a work.

So it's actually quite difficult to allow yourself to encounter work

in a sensuous way

without all these other sort of pre-conditions affecting what you see.

After the war, Degas travelled with his brother Ren?

to New Orleans, Louisiana, to visit some relatives.

The artist painted several portraits of family members

which culminated in an epic group portrait,

The Cotton Office in New Orleans.

This included his uncle in the foreground, inspecting cotton,

one leaning at a window and the other reading a paper.

"I have attached myself to a fairly vigorous picture.

In it there are about 15 individuals

more or less occupied with a table

covered with the precious material and two men,

one half leaning and the other half sitting on it,

the buyer and the broker, are discussing a pattern.

A raw picture if there ever was one,

and I think from a better hand than many another.

What lovely things I could have done, and done rapidly

if the bright daylight were less unbearable for me.

The women are pretty and unusually graceful.

The black world, I have not the time to explore it.

There are some real treasures as regards drawing and colour

in these forests of ebony.

I shall be very surprised to live among white people only in Paris.

And then I love silhouettes so much and these silhouettes walk."

His father died in 1874 leaving large debts

that forced Degas to rely on selling his art to generate an income.

The Cotton Office in New Orleans was exhibited

in the second Impressionist exhibition of 1876

and was the first painting by the artist to enter the French public collections

when it was acquired in 1878 by the Mus?e des beaux-arts in Pau.

He joined the Durand-Ruel Gallery

where his work started to sell to collectors looking for something new.

"Here Durand-Ruel assures me of his devotion

and swears he wants everything I do.

My eyes are not so bad but all the same,

I shall remain in the ranks of the infirm

until I pass into the ranks of the blind.

It really is bitter, is it not?

Sometimes I feel a shiver of horror.

Durand-Ruel takes everything I do, but scarcely sells anything.

Manet, always confident, says he is keeping us for the "bonne bouche",

the best taste for last.

Paul Durand-Ruel was a visionary figure.

Not only did he decide to defend the artists in whom he believed

and who were alive at his time,

but he completely redefined the role of the art dealer.

When Durand-Ruel fell in love with the production of an artist,

he decided to buy everything he could and ask the artist for exclusivity,

in exchange of a monthly payment

which would then financially support the artist's day-to-day life.

In his memoirs, he first saw the pictures of Degas at the official Salon,

starting in 1868, in 1869.

And actually, in the Salon of 1870, Degas exhibits two pictures

which are, each of them, a portrait of a woman,

and Durand-Ruel asks to buy one of them,

but Degas says, "No, unfortunately, they're not for sale."

So this is a stock book of the Durand-Ruel Gallery

from 1868 until 1873.

That's where you find all the purchases made by the gallery,

from whom the pictures are bought, when, at what price.

And, for example, here you have the first two Degas

purchased by Durand-Ruel.

You have the stock number, the name of the artist,

the title of the piece, L'Orchestre de l'Op?ra,

The Opera Orchestra.

Le Foyer de la Danse, purchased from Degas in January 1872.

One is for 1,500 French francs and the other one for 1,000 francs.

And on the next page, you see whether Durand-Ruel is able to sell them,

and you see the second one is sold to Mr Brandon in exchange of pictures.

"Look here, my dear Tissot, no hesitations, no escape.

You positively must exhibit at the Boulevard.

It will do you good, you... and us too.

Manet seems determined to keep aloof, he may well regret it.

Yesterday I saw the arrangement of the premises,

the hangings and the effect in daylight. It is as good as anywhere.

I am getting really worked up and am running the thing with energy

and, I think, a certain success.

it already is, it exists.

It must show itself as something distinct,

there must be a salon of Realists.

Manet does not understand that.

I definitely think he is more vain than intelligent.

So forget the money side for a moment.

Exhibit! Be of your country and with your friends."

It seems that Degas played an important role

in organising some of the Impressionist exhibitions,

and it's quite contradictory to the fact that, indeed,

Degas is more of a portrait painter, or ballerinas painter,

or nudes, or horses,

but he's not what we called then and we can call today a "landscape painter".

It was not what interested him.

He did accept and he wanted the group to be together

but Degas was not so interested by plein air pictures

or plein air painters,

going outside, outdoors, to paint what you could see.

I think some of the defining characteristics

of doing his art practice are essentially that it's studio based.

That's quite an important thing to think about

in terms of our ideas of him as an Impressionist.

Also an extraordinary ability to combine a discipline and a rigour

with incredible waywardness and technical experimentation,

often with very, very unconventional procedures.

"Just an occasional glance out of the window is enough

when I am travelling.

I can get along very well without even going out of my own house.

With a bowl of soup and three old brushes,

you can make the finest landscape ever painted.

I met Monet himself and I said to him,

'Let me get out of here. Those reflections in the water hurt my eyes!'

His pictures were always too draughty for me!

If it had been any worse I should have had to turn up my coat collar.

You see, the air you breathe in a picture

is not necessarily the same as the air out of doors."

Of course, we know of Degas as an impressionist painter,

terminology that he himself resisted in his lifetime.

So what is important to understand about Au Caf?,

point number one, is that it's unfinished.

And the questions and the sort of narrative that it invites,

we really have to take that into account.

How we interpret who these women are, what the dynamic between them is;

it's really dependent on understanding that he hasn't finished it.

What he has done, which again is unlike a lot of his fellow Impressionists,

is that he follows in the academic tradition

of using a form of monochrome painting,

or near monochrome painting, in black or grey,

and sometimes in other colours and beiges,

blacks and greys, with white highlights.

He maps out the terrain, he maps out the composition in that first

and then works over it.

And that, of course, is unlike what we know of the Impressionists,

whose approach was more spontaneous.

Degas himself said, "Nothing about my art is spontaneous.

What I know is what I've learned from the great masters."

Using brush strokes which don't actually make any sense,

we don't quite know what the background is supposed to represent,

but he's laying it in. It's in progress.

Painting, drawing, making sculptures, it's like physical thinking at times.

There is a haptic aspect to painting,

and by that I mean things to do with the kind of muscle memory of the hand.

Degas had built up a lifetime's experience

of describing human and animal forms and landscapes,

and some of that becomes innate,

embedded in your bodily movements when you're working

and that creates a particular and complex relationship

between the work itself, and our idea of time.

A painting, unlike a film,

doesn't really insist that you look at it

for a certain amount of time.

You can have a glance at it, go away for 20 years,

and come back and revisit the same painting, which I've done.

I think we can be fairly sure that Degas finished a work

when he exhibited it.

We know that he was very particular

about how he mounted drawings, for example.

He also cared deeply about the sorts of frames he used for his paintings.

There's one word which could describe Degas' personality,

and that's probably "complex",

but that's a pretty unhelpful cover-all term

to describe what we understand from letters,

from the notes he makes to himself, recollections of him by other people.

It's hard to piece together a single description of his personality.

"At dinner every Friday, at Monsieur Rouart's,

Degas would be the soul of the evening.

A constant, brilliant, unbearable guest, spreading wit, terror, and gaiety.

A piercing mimic, with an endless fund of whims, maxims, banter, anecdotes,

brilliantly unfair in his attacks,

infallible in his taste, narrow-mindedly yet lucidly passionate.

He was always throwing mud at writers, at the Institut,

at the aloof poseurs, and the artists who were bent on getting there.

I can still hear him.

His host, who worshipped him, listened indulgently, admiringly,

while the other guests, young people, ancient generals, speechless ladies,

listened with varying degrees of enjoyment while this prodigious aphorist

exercised his irony, his aesthetic acuity,

and his vehemence."

"Dance, urchin with wings, on the wooden lawns.

Your thin arm in place on the ordered line

gives balance at once to your flight and your weight.

I, who knew you, want for you an illustrious life.

Nymphs, Graces, come down from the summits of old.

Taglioni, come, princess of Arcady,

To ennoble and shape with a smile at my choice,

this new little thing with the impudent face.

If Montmartre has given the spirit and kin,

Roxelane the nose and China the eyes,

Ariel in your turn, give to this new recruit

your light step for daytime, your light step for night.

But for my taste, may she keep the scent of her fruit

and in palaces golden, the race of her street."

Today when we see sculptures of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,

they're almost always,

except in the National Gallery of Art in Washington

where the original wax is housed, they're bronze casts.

And these bronze casts were made after Degas' death

with permission from his heirs.

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen

is a portrait of a young ballerina from the Paris Opera.

Degas loved the Paris Opera,

and went sometimes more than once or twice a week,

and he, I think, was really taken with the ballerina's body,

and movement, and gesture.

This is the only one that he finished and exhibited, it's a wax sculpture,

so he dressed up this wax sculpture of this young girl with a real tutu,

and real hair, and ribbons, and ballet slippers.

She was a girl called Marie van Goethem.

She was the daughter of a Belgian tailor and a laundress,

so she was from a lower-class background.

She was one of the young women who trained at the Paris Opera,

commonly called "petits rats", the little rats,

a reference to perhaps when they scampered around

in the foyer and the corridors of the Opera.

I think it's really fascinating, the contrast between the way we perceive

Degas' Little Dancer of Fourteen Years now by comparison

to how it was seen at the time.

Because, of course, it had been signalled as in progress in 1879,

then in 1880, it was actually in the catalogue for the exhibition,

but instead of showing the dancer, he just showed the glass box

in which it would be displayed the following year.

It's really fascinating, because of course these were the vitrines

that were used for medical displays,

not for artworks at this time.

He is setting the scene for how it will be received.

And when the work is actually exhibited,

the critics will react to it as a medical sample,

as a medical object,

and the medium he's using, the wax medium,

is, of course, par excellence the medium which is used for medical specimens.

So for it to be used as the medium for a real sculpture,

rather than merely a medical example,

was very radical,

but also very explosive in terms of a female figure,

a female body and what he actually produces is a little figure

in which the face is made to look like a simian creature.

And his critics, like Huysmans, absolutely responded accordingly.

They called it a rat, of course, rat is what the ballet chorus were called,

they were called "the rats".

But equally, it was used literally,

because her face was elongated and pointed.

So we have something which almost is a crossover between the exhibition

and the freak show,

high art and popular art.

But because it's Degas, because it's brilliant as an object,

because he's brilliant as an artist,

now we see it in terms of an ideal of the dance.

But of course, these were poor girls from Paris

who were trying to earn a living and it was really a hard living,

and I think Degas was fascinated by this confluence

of a very refined high art, classical ballet,

and all of the ideals that this wonderful art form represented,

with these real girls from the Paris arrondissements,

from some of the poorer neighbourhoods, you know, struggling to make a living.

"When Degas' eyesight became so poor

that he could see only with great difficulty,

he gave up painting for sculpture.

'I must learn a blind man's trade now.'

But this cry of self-pity was somewhat exaggerated.

One day he showed me a little dancer he had done over for the twentieth time.

'I believe I've got it at last,' he announced.

'One or two days more work and it will be ready for the caster.'

The next day, however, all that remained of the little dancing girl

was the original lump of wax from which she had sprung.

Seeing my disappointment,

'All you think of is what it was worth.

But I wouldn't take a bucket of gold for the pleasure I had in destroying it

and beginning over again.'"

The bronzes which we see in exhibitions and museums

throughout the world were cast posthumously

after Degas died with the permission of his heirs.

One of the great rarities in the Fitzwilliam's collection

are three wax statuettes of dancers.

When Degas died in 1917,

the wax sculptures were found in a corner of his studio,

lots of them broken, covered in dust

and in fact, for many people, they brought to mind the sorts of figures

that you would find excavated from an archaeological dig,

notably relating them to Tanagra figurines

which were hugely popular in collecting circles in both France and Britain

at the end of the 19th century.

What, of course, we can now tell

through various forms of scientific and technical analysis

is a lot more about how they were made.

And they were made using twisted wire armatures, a lot of his sculptures,

including those in the Fitzwilliam,

are bulked out using different sorts of material.

Either plastiline, what we now call plasticine,

or wine corks, wine bottle corks,

he even used part of a paintbrush to form part of the structure

around which he modelled the figure.

I think he was interested in the performance of women,

whether it was a Parisienne in a caf?, or a courtesan in a caf?,

a ballerina, a prostitute,

who he would sort of follow voyeuristically behind the scenes

into her bathing chamber.

So I think, you know, he was interested in capturing women,

late 19th-century French women in their off moments,

in their non-performative moments.

He does have, historically, a very complex relation

with women and, of course, class again is crucial.

Even more complex when it's a fellow artist, like Mary Cassatt for example,

whom he obviously admired, whose work he thought was really, really strong,

really powerful, and yet represented her in ways which are complex,

which are ambivalent.

They don't celebrate her as an artist in the way, for example,

his portrait of Duranty celebrates Duranty as a writer.

So he can give recognition to a male fellow

in terms of their professional esteem,

but not a fellow artist who was a woman, like Cassatt.

He can hardly be described as having a great number of close female friends,

and clearly he didn't have long-term relations with women either,

although he may well have had prostitutes himself.

Certainly some art historians argue that he did so,

and he was clearly very familiar with life in the brothel,

which one has to assume is actually from direct experience.

But he was not someone for whom anything but art was really crucial.

"I said to Renoir, 'I've heard Lautrec compared with Degas.'

'Ridiculous!', he said, 'Lautrec did some very fine posters,

but that's about all.

Just compare their paintings of coquettes...

why, they're worlds apart!

Lautrec just painted a prostitute,

while Degas painted all prostitutes rolled into one.

Lautrec's prostitutes are vicious, Degas' never.

While others paint a bawdy house, the result is usually pornographic,

always sad to the point of despair.

Degas is the only painter who can combine a certain joyousness,

that chaste, half-religious side, which makes his work so great,

it is at its best when he paints those poor girls.'"

For someone who wants to focus in the kind of obsessional way

that Degas focused,

having a housemaid, a housekeeper, like Zoe, was the perfect answer.

She served all the needs of a wife,

without the sex and without having to take any notice of her as a wife.

Effectively, all the women apart from

the ones he had relationships with socially,

were women he paid,

whether it was models, whether it was Zoe, his housekeeper,

for anything, it was a paid relationship,

so he knew where he stood and had control in that situation.

His relations with women were much more complex,

much more difficult with women of his own class.

However considered his relationship with Cassatt was,

it was nevertheless at arm's length.

"Hitherto the nude has always been represented in poses

which presuppose an audience,

but these women of mine are honest, simple folk,

unconcerned by any other interests

than those involved in their physical condition.

It is as if you looked through the keyhole."

What's really remarkable about the drawings

is they feel like they are fleeting moments

where you've just drawn someone

as they're getting dressed or undressed around you,

and they feel like they're very swift drawings but actually, they're not.

They're very, very hard for those models to hold those poses.

They are very physically challenging

and it really made me think about how Degas was working with his models

and the amount of commitment those models would have had to have

to be able to pose for him again and again,

to work very long hours with him, to really work with somebody

who's revisiting the same thing again and again.

Any artist knows, if you've got a good model,

the job is half done.

It's a profession.

You have the same models, if they're really good, will be highly in demand,

will be circulating amongst the key artists' studios,

and there will be competition for their time.

So it was a way in which women could work and be respected at the period.

He doesn't want an individual particular.

It's not a portrait; it's about the body, it's about the action,

it's about the way the body moves and how.

The emphasis is on the animal, the physicality of the body.

And obviously sensual, erotic,

but not a portrait.

This is about other and, in fact, very complex, issues here.

I think the idea of a perfect drawing

is something that Degas is testing.

I think having the confidence to leave mistakes there,

to leave shadows of what wasn't working,

to have the confidence to assert the line

when something is going well for you

or is capturing what you're trying to achieve is really important.

When we're new to drawing,

we don't always want to be seen to be doing something that's bad.

We don't want to be seen to be doing something that looks like a mistake,

but actually, those are the things that are crucial and are valuable.

Degas is working through the drawing to understand something

and therefore the things that aren't working are just as valuable.

You can see his confidence in himself as he looks.

Degas's interest in matter is really fascinating,

because he starts off interested,

or influenced more by the academic tradition, shall we say,

with an artist like Ingres

for whom the important thing was to smooth out matter,

where the brush marks, the signs of making, were not visible.

With Degas, increasingly the work becomes deeply material,

deeply tactile, very much the matter of someone

who is physically engaged with their hands in what they're making.

Not only was he later working much, much more with clay and so forth,

but here with, in fact, the monotypes that he started a few years earlier,

he's working very, very physically.

So there's this sense of the process being absolutely crucial,

the process and his physical engagement with the process

as being almost as important as the end product.

One of the highlights from the Fitzwilliam's own collection,

is a beautiful large pastel,

Two Dancers in Violet Skirts, Arms Raised.

And as part of the process, in preparation for the exhibition,

this work was carefully examined,

and you don't always get the opportunity

to do that with 18,000 drawings in our own collection.

The work was photographed under different wavelengths.

So we have a daylight image,

we have an ultraviolet image and we have an infrared image.

These analysis techniques are especially helpful,

because they're non-invasive,

and they can be quite revealing

about the way the artwork is constructed and built up.

The fluorescence is telling us about the material,

or a part of a material within the make-up of the pastel.

On a number of the works, there's quite a range of media.

You may have some graphite.

More typically, you've got passages of charcoal,

maybe fabricated black chalks, occasionally watercolour.

On this one, lots of pastel

and Degas is also known to have added a spirit to the pastel.

It would be called an essence medium

and that would enable him perhaps to manipulate the surface more.

So, he's using pastel, taking it in new directions.

It's supposed to be a medium which is very light and delicate and fresh.

With some of them, he just builds up to such an extent

that he's deadening the surface.

So he's working over and over and over again,

then he will try spraying it with fixative,

or he'll spray it with water,

and then almost create a wet surface

so that he can work further into it and move the colour around.

Then he'll also change the format. He'll add a bit at the bottom,

he'll add another bit at the side.

So there's the relationship between the original composition

or the spatial positioning of the figure,

adding a bit extra to change the composition as he goes along.

Experiments and failures are, I think,

really at the essence of what painters are trying to do at any time.

We know what painters have been able to do in the past,

but you always have to take that risk

with the materials to go against the grain.

Degas is not the only artist who commits himself

to a kind of creative cycle of destruction, and reiteration,

and rebuilding over and over again.

It's not a circle, it's kind of like a spiral

where you're building towards something,

and revisiting, going in again and having a second run-up on something

in order to get closer to what it was you were aiming for.

"It is all very well to copy what one sees,

but it is much better to draw what one does not see except in one's memory.

It's a transformation during which the imagination collaborates with memory.

You reproduce only what has struck you, that is, the necessary.

In that way, your memories and your fantasy

are liberated from the tyranny exercised by nature."

Despite being so open to experimentation

and new artistic thinking,

Degas had strong conservative views which were often anti-Semitic.

He was not shy in making his views known,

particularly when it came to his opposition

during the Dreyfus Affair.


Spanning 12 years, this affair caused a major political and social divide

when a Jewish French officer, Alfred Dreyfus,

was accused of giving secrets to the German Empire and betraying France.

The whole affair split the nation

into those who were for Dreyfus and believed him to be innocent,

called "Dreyfusards", and those who were against him

and saw him as a Jewish traitor.


Degas was against,

and although Dreyfus was eventually cleared of his crimes

after many years in prison

for what was considered a major miscarriage of justice,

Degas could not reconcile his resentment.

He slowly withdrew from the world and cut ties with close Jewish friends

such as the influential Hal?vy family.

There was not just anti-Semitism,

but a huge amount of anti-migrant,

of nationalist sentiment,

particularly in the last decade,

a seriously problematic attitude towards incomers, towards migrants.

But obviously, many of the Jewish community were long-standing residents,

long-standing French people.

His anti-Semitism, which began very early,

it's not as if it suddenly appeared, but because of the Dreyfus Affair,

it tipped him over the edge and it was a dramatic split,

but characteristic of the age.

There was a lot of anti-Semitism around at the time.

You have very various political beliefs or religious beliefs.

For example, Monet was a Republican,

Pissarro was a Jewish anarchist, Courbet was a Communard,

Durand-Ruel yet, who was a conservative Catholic, defended them all,

and for all of them the bottom line was art before anything else.

Perhaps "complex" is the only way to describe somebody

who was certainly charismatic,

but at the same time could alienate people by his gruffness,

his harshness,

somebody who, by his own admission, had a vicious tongue.

Somebody who was also called misanthropic,

who was called misogynistic,

who certainly endured periods

of what he called "dark thoughts", and melancholy.

"His hearing became worse and he was now almost totally blind.

His indifference to everything increased,

and finally included even himself.

But in spite of his forlorn appearance,

there was always a certain distinction about him to the end.

He had the air of having stepped out of a portrait, say,

of the Italian school.

He spent his last days wandering aimlessly about Paris,

but usually his ramblings ended up at his former home, in Montmartre,

now rapidly disappearing under the hands of the wreckers."

"I am taking great care of my bladder

with turpentine, Contreville water,

and by cutting out coffee, spirits, etc.

But my kidneys still hurt. My eyes are failing.

I have had a little exhibition at Durand-Ruel

of 26 imaginary landscapes which has been rather successful.

I wish above all to remain alone,

to work as quietly as possible with my poor eyes,

and in order to obtain that quiet and that supreme good fortune,

condemn myself also to die alone."

We see that at the end of his life, Degas has become quite an old man.

He's sick and tired,

and yet he doesn't really want his niece to come at his home.

We see that Cassatt writes to Durand-Ruel,

"Yes, I don't understand Degas,

who doesn't want to welcome his niece, who really wants to help him".

But Degas is obsessed by the idea that they only want,

maybe, his works of art, his money, his heritage,

while Cassatt, who is quite close to Degas and to Durand-Ruel,

"They want to help him,

but he doesn't want to open his door".

Degas never married

and many of his acquaintances

could not maintain a relationship with him in the end

due to his difficult nature.

He died in Paris on 27th September 1917, aged 83.

In a letter to his gallery,

"You will realise how much I've produced, only at my death".

When Degas died and the Durand-Ruel family,

along with other dealers,

had to organise the sales after his death,

all the drawings they found in his studio were not signed,

as an artist only signs them when he sells them,

only when they get out of his studio.

So, Durand-Ruel takes photographs of all that is in his studio

and will have to later on put the signatures,

a stamped signature of Degas, on all Degas' work.

So here are the sales catalogues of the sales after Degas' death.

You have here the first catalogue, which is the first sale in 1918.

And you see that...

the experts for that sale are Mr Bernheim Jeune,

Durand-Ruel, and Vollard.

And the exhibition takes place at Georges Petit's Gallery.

Here you have the three various stamps they will use

in order to put Degas' signature on all these works of art which are not signed,

because they are in the artist's studio.

They'd authenticate the works of art and sign them with a stamp.

The works that Degas collected furiously,

mainly in the 1890s, were put up for sale.

He was a hugely enthusiastic collector himself.

But also a series of studio sales of his own work.

And they were hugely revealing.

He'd kept works in his studio from really his earliest career as an artist,

so the 1850s and early 1860s,

as well as thousands,

hundreds of drawings of nudes,

late charcoal drawings which were studio works,

again never intended for exhibition.

His legacy has been enormous, I think,

and it's partly due to his openness to new technology.

On the other hand, his engagement with that sensuality of colour,

you can see clear links to late 20th-century artists,

like Howard Hodgkin, for example,

for whom the experience of colour

is something that is capable of being eloquent and articulate

in describing our relationships to each other,

the quality of emotions we may experience in everyday life.

I think unquestionably he's a brilliant artist.

The extraordinary range, ingenuity, variety of work

that he achieved in a whole range of different media,

which was extremely adventurous and experimental.

I think it always has to be measured in the context of the time he worked.

It's really important not to ignore the past

and the way the past coloured his view,

and colours how we see him.

Degas' work looks effortless.

Those drawings, those pastels, look as if they were just dashed off,

but of course we know that he worked incredibly hard.

No wonder he was so grumpy in later life.

This kind of slightly obsessive quality

that I think made Degas

this most fascinating, and most perfectionist of artists.

Also, one of the sort of flawed geniuses of art as well.

I think Degas is a very great artist and of that coterie of impressionist,

post-impressionist painters, I think he is one of the very greatest.

"The gods are dead,

poetry alone is left to us, the last star in the night of chaos.

I have seen some very beautiful things through my anger,

and what consoles me a little,

is that through my anger I do not stop looking.

Art is not a matter of what you see,

but what you make other people see."

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