The Painter of Modern Life


Aristocratic and conservative in his tastes and opinions, Edgar Degas was a revolutionary in art.

Edgar Degas, A Cotton Office in New Orleans, 1873

Edgar Degas, A Cotton Office in New Orleans, 1873, oil on canvas.

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“A work of art,” Émile Zola wrote after seeing the Salon of 1866, “is a corner of creation seen through a temperament.” In Zola’s novels, biology is destiny. The human temperament is fixed, like that of a piano, but democratic, commercial society is fluid. The 20-novel history of the Rougon-Macquarts, a French family under the Second Empire of Louis Napoleon, demonstrates the resulting disorder, “the fatal convulsions that accompany the birth of a new world.”

“Make expressive heads (Academic style) into a study of modern sentiment,” Edgar Degas wrote in a notebook in the late 1860s. A new world required a new vision. Degas’ contribution to the Salon of 1866, Scene from the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey, is often seen as prefiguring a shift of temperament, a turn from historical to contemporary subjects in the 1870s. “Degas: A New Vision,” which opens on October 6 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (through January 8), suggests that while Degas’ eye turned from Spartan athletes to Parisian dancers, his temperament remained fixed. As in Zola’s fiction, the world changed around him.

Curated by Gary Tinterow of the MFAH and the Degas scholar Henri Loyette, “A New Vision” is most international exhibition since “Degas,” the landmark 1988 retrospective at the Grand Palais, Paris, whose curators also included Tinterow and Loyette. The exhibition collects more than 200 works from public and private collections and surveys the sweep of Degas’s career, from his Italian studies of the 1850s to his photographic experiments of the 1890s.

“Once I get hold of a line,” Degas told Walter Sickert, “I never let go of it.” And the line, like the idée fixe of a Balzac character, never relinquished Degas. His fleeting poses and transitional movements are both technical descriptions and psychological portraits. The two are not the same, and their blending in Degas’s expert line produces the intimate and disquieting effects that run through his work. The draughtsman resolves a challenge to his eye by capturing the physical tension of muscle and nerves. In doing so, he depicts unresolved and uncertain psychological states, notably his own.


This effect is most explicit in the early group portraits. Degas has a Tolstoyan eye for the varieties of unhappy family. In his dual portrait of his brother-in-law and sister, Edmondo and Thérèse Morbilli (1865), Thérèse is half obscured by a table, while Edmondo dominates the foreground, so much so that his left elbow is off the canvas. Candidly anxious, Thérèse raises one hand to her cheek and keeps the other on Edmondo’s right shoulder, as if trying to calm herself. Edmondo sits sideways on a dining chair, his left shoulder cocked on the back of the chair, his left hand dangling loosely. He looks relaxed, but he cannot meet our gaze.

Thérèse looks directly at us with honest weakness, but Edmondo looks shiftily to his left. Like his left elbow, his eyes are pushing out of the picture, and away from Thérèse. By propping his left shoulder on the chair back, he drops his right shoulder. Thérèse’s hand will only remain there if she maintains the pressure, and if Edmondo continues his leftward drift, he will pull away from her entirely. His left leg might even be tensing in preparation for standing up and escaping a situation in which he is not as comfortable as he pretends.

“To find a method of composition that reflects our times,” Degas wrote in 1859. In that year, he began preparatory sketches for another masterpiece of misery. The Bellelli Family (1867) is a group portrait of his Italian in-laws, a bourgeois drama executed on the scale of a history painting. Laure, his father’s favorite sister, is stoically sad in black. Her pose echoes Holbein and Van Dyck, but she is a modern neurotic whose marriage has been displaced by the “fatal convulsions” of modern politics. Her husband, Gennaro Bellelli, is exiled from Naples for his activism in the Risorgimento.

Gennaro sits with his back to us, unemployed and unreliable. His face is seen in profile, as if he were a Roman preparing for his image to be stamped on the coinage, or a successful modern politician posing for an engraving. The gravity of failure, marital and public, pulls their daughters, Giovanna and Giulia, in different directions. Laure has a hand on Giovanna’s shoulder. Steadied before the gaze of the world, Giovanna is the only figure to look at the viewer. Giulia sits in the center of the picture. She is looking past Gennaro, but he is looking at her. She is his only point of contact with his family. She sits with one leg tucked under her body, ready to topple toward him, and out of Laure’s grasp. Although Laure and her daughters avoid Gennaro’s gaze, someone is watching him, and not just the artist. On the wall behind Laure’s shoulder, Degas reprises his oil portrait of his recently deceased grandfather Hilaire De Gas as an “Old Master drawing” in sanguine chalk.

In 1855, the young Degas had approached his hero, Ingres, through a family friend, and asked for advice. “Draw lines, lots of lines,” Ingres said, “from nature or from memory.” The Bellelli Family took eight years, long enough for Degas to convert his impressions of the Bellellis into muscle memory, and to reconcile modern sentiments with the “expressive heads” of the Renaissance masters. The line is beautiful, the implications bitter. Gennaro’s ironic profile and the mock Old Master drawing of Hilaire De Gas are satires on modern life.

The “Painter of Modern Life,” Baudelaire wrote in 1863, must “extract from fashion the poetry that resides in its historical envelope, to distil the eternal from the transitory.” In Interior (1868–69), Degas applied the method of the history painter to the sordid matter of a Zola novel. In a dark bedroom somewhere on the border between the distressed middle class and the respectable working class, a man in bourgeois costume leans against the bedroom door, and a woman in a nightdress crouches half in shadow. On the table, her pink-lined jewelry box is open, its contents probed harshly by the light overhead.

Degas called Interior “my genre painting.” But this scene does not contain enough clues to tell a genre painting’s story. In the early 20th century, the painting was referred to as The Rape, but Degas’ friend Paul Poujaud knew it as The Quarrel. Are we looking at a classical antecedent, the rape of Lucretia by Tarquin, which sparked the revolt that turned Rome from a monarchy to a republic? Or a modern consummation, perhaps from Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, where Thérèse and her lover, having murdered her husband, prepare for their wedding night? Or a mundane scene of prostitution, raised to the level of allegory by the violence and tension of Degas’ execution?

In the early 1870s, modern life assaulted Degas as if he were the protagonist in one of Zola’s instructive catastrophes. In 1870, France accepted Prussia’s invitation to war and lost. The Second Empire fell, the emperor absconded to London, and Paris rose in revolt. The liberal Third Republic arose to make peace with Prussia and make war on the citizens of Paris.

Degas volunteered for the National Guard in 1870. During rifle training, he discovered that his eyesight was defective. So too, it emerged after his father’s death in 1873, was his vision of his family. His father, Auguste, had been a banker; his mother Célestine’s family was in the cotton business in Louisiana. Family money had cushioned Degas for 40 years. Now, it emerged that his brother René had sunk the family in debt. Degas had to sell his house and art collection to clear René’s debts and the family name. Cornered, he had to earn a living for the first time. The pictures of ballet dancers and racehorses sold especially well.

“After a great many essays and experiments and trial shots in all directions, he has fallen in love with modern life,” Edmond de Goncourt wrote in 1874, after a visit to Degas’ studio. But Degas’ eye had always been on modern life, even when his mind was on ancient Greece. The posture of the boy on all fours in Young Spartan Girls Challenging Spartan Boys (1860–62, reworked 1880) recurs in his brothel sketches. He had exhibited his first picture of a dancer, Mlle. Fiocre in the “Ballet La Source” at the Salon of 1868. Degas was not in love with modern life as much as he was a prisoner of it. He preferred the city to the country, the line of a dancer’s leg to that of a tree.

Degas exhibited in seven of the eight Impressionist exhibitions between 1874 and 1888, but he described himself as an Independent or a Realist. He rejected plein air painting in favor of traditional studio practice. He insisted, and not without reason, that no art was “less spontaneous” than his. Aristocratic in manner, reactionary in politics, and classical in taste, he was uncomfortable with the Impressionists’ courting of controversy and publicity. In 1880, Zola even accused him of having exploited the Impressionists, in order to place his “refined and elaborate works” before a public that might otherwise have missed them.

Degas followed his lonely line into and out of the Impressionist controversy. His commonality with the Impressionists is not just in his eye for the evanescent and the quasi-photographic fixing of mobile effects. His technical commonality with the Impressionists is strongest in his use of pastels. Pastels cannot be mixed on a palette, but must be applied alla prima, directly onto the picture ground. To avoid overmixing, which kills the colors, pastels must be applied in correct sequences—blue over red, not red over blue—or by spaced strokes that mix in the viewer’s eye.

“Make portraits of people in familiar and typical positions,” ran another of Degas’ notebook jottings, “above all, give faces the same character of expression one gives their bodies.” Familiar, that is, to the muscles that sustain the pose, and typical of the person who makes the movement. In A Cotton Office in New Orleans (1873), his uncle, the cotton merchant Michel Musson, assesses raw cotton that is as light as a cloud but heavy with potential cash value. The perfectly balanced dancer bows with a bouquet in Finishing the Arabesque (1877); in the dressing room, the ungainly nudes hop from bath to floor.

By the 1890s, Degas was more than half blind and experimenting with a metal contraption that covered his blind right eye entirely and allowed his weakening left eye to see through a narrow slit. He called his late paintings “an orgy of color,” a final visit to his brothel of the senses. For his last drawings, he measured his model with a pair of compasses, not realizing that he was pricking her skin. After he moved to a smaller apartment, a developer knocked down his house. Drawn by memory, Degas continued to visit the site, looking at a hole in the ground, but seeing the “lines, lots of lines” of architecture, and the life that had been within.

Degas was always a man of temperamental obsessions—engraving, poetry, anti-Semitism. Like Zola, he took up photography in late life. Degas’ photographs are taken head-on, not from the corners, and they have the narrative clarity of history painting. In an 1895 photograph, the artist poses next to Albert Bartholomé’s oil, Weeping Girl. In the shadowed room, his little corner of creation, he strokes his beard and contemplates the girl’s curled, naked body. It is as though she has emanated from his head like an ectoplasm at a séance—or as if he has never left the room of Interior.


By Dominic Green

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: September 2016