Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist-Works on Paper by the Artist and his Circle opened at the Frick Art & Historical Center
in Point Breeze on Saturday, June 28, 2014. Edgar Degas (1834-1917), one of the most familiar of the Impressionist artists, is known for his iconic paintings of ballet dancers, horse racing, and bathers. This exhibition of more than 100 works on paper is built around a core group of 55 works by Degas, known as one of the strongest draftsmen of the Impressionist circle. From early drawings to late experiments in photography, the exhibition will illuminate the artist's personal life, his creative restlessness and experimentation, and his wider artistic circle. Complemented by more than 50 works by his contemporaries, Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist creates an intimate portrait of the artist by investigating his most famous subjects, the people that were close to him, and the types of artworks he himself collected. The exhibition will remain on view through October 5, 2014. Admission to the exhibition is free.
Although Degas' artistic interests were apparent from a young age, his family expected him to study law, and so, after a classical education in which he learned both Latin and Greek, Degas dutifully began his law studies in 1853. In 1855, however, Degas met the celebrated artist Jean- Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), at this oft-recounted meeting, Ingres advised the young Degas, "Draw lines, young man, nothing but lines, from life and from memory." Heeding Ingres' advice, Degas began attending the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in April that same year. A year later, he traveled to Italy, where he spent three years. He first visited family in Naples, and later traveled to Rome where he became friends with Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) and Léon Bonnat (1833-1922), who were studying in Italy at the Academie Française. Degas drew and painted copies after Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and other Renaissance artists, but his interest in portraiture also intensified, and he made many studies of his family that reveal his early interest in exploring the individual in modern society. Dating to the same time period as Degas' famous group portrait The Bellili Family, his drawing of one of his young Italian relatives, Mlle Dembowska, depicts her with an unusually self-composed and thoughtful expression.
Another significant meeting with a fellow artist had a great impact on the direction of his work, when Degas met Edouard Manet (1832-1883) in the early 1860s while both were making copies at the Louvre. With Manet's encouragement Degas exhibited his first modern subject, Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey, at the Salon of 1866.
The 1870s were an eventful period for Degas-he traveled to America in 1872, where he spent time in New Orleans with family. (The exhibition includes two Cecil Beaton photographs from the 1940s of the Degas residences in New Orleans.) In 1874, after the death of his father, Degas took responsibility for his brother's debts. For the first time in his life, he needed to earn a living from his art. That same year, he exhibited with The Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers-later to become known as the Impressionists. Degas however had little in common with Monet and the plein air painters of the Impressionist group, stating at one point, "No art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and of the study of the great masters . . ." It was Degas' interest in experimentation, modernity and working outside the academy that made him an Impressionist.
As Degas' financial situation improved he began his own art collection. Three artists he idolized, Ingres, Delacroix and Daumier, were especially well represented in his collection. Many of the artists he personally admired and collected, as well as other peers are represented in the section of the exhibition examining the circle of Degas in Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist, including notables like Giovanni Boldini (1842-19431), Eugène Carrière (1849-1906), Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Honoré Daumier (1808-1879), Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), Ingres, Alphonse Legros (1837-1911), Manet, Adolph Menzel (1815-1905), Moreau, Edweard Muybridge (1830-1904), Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), and James Tissot (1836-1902).
Degas enthusiastically embraced the new medium of photography and a number of his photographs are included in the exhibition, both illuminating this facet of his career and further elaborating the artistic circles of the time; since Degas often photographed friends, luminaries like the composers Chausson and Debussy appear in his photographs. Particularly interested in creating formal compositions and exploring light effects, one of Degas' acquaintances recalled that an evening with Degas and a camera required "two hours of military obedience."
Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist-Works on Paper by the Artist and his Circle provides a rare glimpse into Degas' personal interests, work process and experimentation through drawings, etchings, monoprints and photographs and through investigating his most famous subjects, the people that were close to him and the types of artworks he himself collected. The works will be installed in a thematic chronology-beginning with early drawings made after Old Masters and antiquities at the Louvre, and featuring some early family portraits. Degas' time in Italy is represented by several early etchings and the beautiful drawing Mlle. Dembowska. A section of the exhibition explores his experimentation with printmaking, including etchings, aquatints, and drypoints. One chromolithograph and a number of drawings illustrate his interest in horses and racing subjects. Later work is represented through his photography and experiments with monoprints. Together the works by Degas and his circle provide a rich cross-section of the cultural life of France in the second half of the nineteenth century, expanding our vision of Degas and giving a sense of the varied personalities and common interests of the time.