Edgar Degas: Drawings and Pastels by Christopher Lloyd (2014)

Degas’s forensic approach favours those moments when humanity reveals its frailties. (p.191)

This book contains 238 illustrations, mostly in colour, of the pencil, black-chalk, pen-and-ink and charcoal drawings and the innumerable highly-coloured pastels of the master draughtsman among the Impressionists, Edgar Degas (1834–1917).

As a devotee of disegno (the Renaissance term for the art of drawing, and by extension of creating a composition) I found many of Degas’s drawings as ravishing as a work of art can be. Size-wise the book is half way between normal paperback and coffee table so the reproductions aren’t big, but they’re big enough to delight and amaze.

The text is by one-time Surveyor of the Queen’s pastels, Christopher Lloyd (b.1945). Lloyd points out that it was only after Degas’s death in 1917, when the contents of his studio were auctioned off, that anyone really appreciated the enormous number of sketches and pastels which Degas had created throughout his life, not to mention the contents of the 30-plus notebooks he left. There is a vast amount of material.

Lloyd treats Degas’ life and works in straightforward chronological manner:

  1. Beginnings 1853–1855 – His family was affluent: Dad was a banker from a French family who emigrated to Naples. Another branch of the degas family moved to New Orleans, USA and became successful in the cotton trade.
  2. Italy 1856–1859 – Degas goes on a self-financed odyssey round the great galleries of Italy, sketching everything he saw.
  3. History Paintings 1860–1865 – Degas makes a concerted effort to conform and paint the kind of history paintings which French High Society and the official Salon prized most. The book includes reproductions of Semiramis Building Babylon, 1861, The Daughter of Jephthah, 1859-1860, Scene of War in the Middle Ages, 1865 and so on – which are, frankly, not that convincing. By contrast, the preparatory sketches to these big works are almost all breath-taking. Degas kept the early work, Young Spartans Exercising, 1860, in his studio and carried on tinkering with it well into the 1880s, though he never got the faces right. Anyway, the history strategy failed, with none of the history paintings being accepted by the Salon.
  4. Changing Directions 1865–1870 – Degas meets Manet, only two years older than him (b.1832). Overlapping with his history paintings he starts to sketch scenes of modern life. Compare Portrait of Mlle Eugenie Fiocre a propos the ballet ‘Le Source’, 1868, with Racehorses before the stands, 1866-8.
  5. Confronting the Modern World 1870–1879 – Degas takes a five-month trip to his relatives in New Orleans, which opens his eyes about the vastness of the modern world. But it’s back in Paris that Degas becomes part of the new avant-garde, meeting Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Renoir et al, and playing a key role in organising the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. During the 1870s he really consolidates his interest in certain key subjects: ballet dancers, horse-racing, women at work (washerwomen, milliners), women at their toilette.
  6. Retreat into the Studio 1880–1890 – Degas diversifies into print-making, painting fans, and making sketches for large-scale friezes – though these never seem to have been completed. He experimented with stylised viewpoints, compressing the picture space, and deliberately cropping images, an aesthetic effect copied from photography.
  7. Landscape Drawings – Degas notoriously deprecated landscape painting (odd, really, considering that that was the core motif of Impressionism). He made some landscapes on his travels (he was probably the most-travelled of the Impressionists) but as objects of fact rather than sentimental ‘beauty’. Then in the 1890s he began to extend his interest in the monotype technology he’d first used in the 1880s, this time experimentally manipulating oil paint over the basic printed image. This created a suite of works which, ironically, was the subject of the only one-man show ever devoted to him in his lifetime (in 1892) . They surprised his devotees by moving decisively beyond Impressionism and into the hazy, half-imaginary world of fin-de-siècle Symbolism. – Landscape with smokestacks, 1890. Landscape, 1890.
  8. ‘The Dying of the Light’ 1890–c. 1912 – Degas’s eyesight deteriorated at the same time as he switched to the chosen medium of his final years, intensely coloured pastel, laid on with repeated, thick lines and hatchings, each layer preserved with a fixative and then drawn over again. This produced super-luminous visions which he often dabbed with wetted pastel sticks to produce magical sparkles and highlights. – After The Bath, Woman With A Towel, 1897. The dancers, 1892.

Lloyd not only takes us through Degas’ life, but systematically covers Degas’ various subject areas – the dancers and ballerinas (which form over half of Degas’s total oeuvre), the racehorses, the women workers (milliners, laundresses), and the women at their toilettes.

Half the pleasure comes from the sketches of subjects which don’t figure so much in the finished pastels or oil paintings but which he endlessly explored. Studies pure and simple of faces, men standing around, nude women and more ballerinas.

What an eye! And what an ability to rough out the forms and gestures of human beings with such conviction, creating brisk, confident lines on paper which bring an entire human moment to life.

Some staggering sketches

Study of a ribbon (1882) by Degas

Study of a ribbon (1882) by Degas

New terms

  • balletomane – a ballet enthusiast
  • contre-jour (‘against daylight’) uses sources of daylight in a painting or pastel to produce backlighting of the subject. The effect usually hides details, causes a stronger contrast between light and dark, creates silhouettes and emphasizes lines and shapes.
  • les rats – nickname for the youngest ballet dancers in the corps de ballet. Edmond de Goncourt described them as ‘little monkey girls’ (quoted page 118)
  • mise-en-page – fancy French term for page layout and design
  • repoussoir is one of the pictorial means of achieving perspective or spatial contrasts by the use of illusionistic devices such as the placement of a large figure or object in the immediate foreground of a painting to increase the illusion of depth in the rest of the picture.

Related links

Reviews of Impressionist exhibitions

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