Tuesday, June 25, 2013


At the Races in the Countryside
oil on canvas
36.5 x 55.9 cm
Museum of Fine Arts Boston, MA, USA

In the late 1860's Degas depicted a family at the races in a scene said to have been influenced by his study of English pictures. He was especially influenced by the new science/art of photography, and often composed his works with a spontaneous snapshot quality.
This painting is not only a landscape but also a scene from everyday life and - most of all - a family portrait. The driver of the carriage is Degas's friend Paul Valpincon, who is shown with his wife, a wet nurse who has bared her breast to feed the child. It is an unusual scene with a focus on breasts and fertility. Scholars have cited various identities for the man without noting his resemblance to Edouard Manet.

"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)

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)