Friday, March 29, 2013

Degas, Edgar

Four Dancers
c. 1899
oil on canvas
151.1 x 180.2 cm (59 1/2 x 70 15/16 in.)
Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA

"In painting you must give the idea of the true by means of the false." "Art is vice. You don't marry it legitimately, you rape it." (Degas)

Degas frequented the ballet and opera, where he found subjects not only in performance but also within the unexpected frames created by the angles of stage wings and practice-room mirrors. Four Dancers, one of the largest and most ambitious of his late works, exists in several variants that show different kinds and degrees of modification. As Degas' eyesight worsened, he increasingly preferred pastels to oil paints. In Four Dancers, Degas used oils to imitate the color effects and matte surface of pastels. The sketchy background of the stage set, painted in a broad, almost blurry manner, is typical of Degas' late works, but he trains a sudden sharp focus on the dancers' backs.

Edgar Degas (1834 - 1917) was a French artist famous for his work in painting, sculpture, printmaking and drawing. He is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism although he rejected the term, and preferred to be called a realist. A superb draughtsman, he is especially identified with the subject of the dance, and over half his works depict dancers. These display his mastery in the depiction of movement, as do his racecourse subjects and female nudes. His portraits are considered to be among the finest in the history of art.

Early in his career, his ambition was to be a history painter, a calling for which he was well prepared by his rigorous academic training and close study of classic art. In his early thirties he changed course, and by bringing the traditional methods of a history painter to bear on contemporary subject matter, he became a classical painter of modern life.

Certain features of his work remained the same throughout his life. He always painted indoors, preferring to work in his studio, either from memory or using models. The figure remained his primary subject; his few landscapes were produced from memory or imagination. It was not unusual for him to repeat a subject many times, varying the composition or treatment. He was a deliberative artist whose works were prepared, calculated, practiced, developed in stages. They were made up of parts. The adjustment of each part to the whole, their linear arrangement, was the occasion for infinite reflection and experiment.  "In art, nothing should look like chance, not even movement." (Degas)

In company he was known for his wit, which could often be cruel. He was characterized as an "old curmudgeon", and he deliberately cultivated his reputation as a misanthropic bachelor. Profoundly conservative in his political opinions, he opposed all social reforms and found little to admire in such technological advances as the telephone. He fired a model upon learning she was Protestant. "The artist must live alone, and his private life must remain unknown." (Degas)