It has taken our art institutions a lot longer to get around to a serious consideration of “late” Degas than it did to lavish attention on the late work of Monet, Cézanne, or Matisse—or even, for that matter, Picasso, in whose late paintings the whole subject of a “late style” collapses into parody, if not indeed farce. There are no doubt good reasons for this delay. Nothing in late Degas commands the sheer physical scale of late Monet or late Matisse, and except among a small circle of the artist’s devotees Degas himself has never been deified as the kind of culture hero we have made of Cézanne and Picasso. There is, moreover, nothing in the way of romance or a personal myth to be exploited in the promotion of Degas, early or late. He was neither a model bohemian nor a model bourgeois—on the contrary, in everything but his art he was something of a reactionary—and his dour detachment from all matters having to do with personal sentiment is not the kind of outlook on life that lends itself to popular appeal. In some respects, at least, the fate of late Degas bears a closer resemblance to that of late Pissarro, whose paintings of the 1890s we have also been somewhat tardy in coming to appreciate on anything like the level that their quality warrants.

Beginning in the late 1960s, however—a dozen or so years after the revival of late Monet took the art world by storm on both sides of the Atlantic—the first tentative signs of a rediscovery of late Degas began to make themselves felt. This rediscovery, like the art that inspired it, was on a much smaller scale than the Monet revival, which introduced the contemporary art public to the mural-size water-garden paintings of the artist’s old age. In the 1950s, both with artists and the public, Monet’s oversize late paintings proved to be an immense sensation—the kind of sensation that causes artists to rethink their own artistic goals and procedures, and moves historians to revise their views of the recent past. Thus the immediate effect of the late-Monet revival was to change the scale of American abstract painting and alter the way the history of the turn-of-the-century European avant-garde would henceforth be written.

The rediscovery of late Degas in the 1960s unfolded at a much more modest pace, however, and it did not exert anything like the kind of influence on contemporary artistic practice that for a time seemed to make the elderly Monet a cohort of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, a progenitor of Joan Mitchell, and a patron saint of Color-field abstraction. The exhibition that Eugenia Parry Janis devoted to Degas’s monotypes at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum in 1968 was certainly a capital event—I count it, indeed, as marking my own introduction to the dour delights of late Degas—but I don’t think it can be said to have sparked any widespread response from contemporary artists. There was Picasso, to be sure, who was clearly familiar with the brothel scenes that Ms. Janis included in the Fogg exhibition and—if I remember correctly—who acquired some examples of them for his own collection. Those brothel scenes may well have exerted some influence on the erotic fantasias of the elderly Picasso. Yet on this subject it is doubtful that Picasso needed instruction from any outside source, so it may be more correct to speak of an affinity rather than an influence. But by that time Picasso was no longer in a position to influence the course of contemporary art.

Still, the Degas that some of us discovered in that 1968 exhibition of monotypes was, for all practical purposes, an “unknown” artist—an artist who seemed, at first glance anyway, to have severed all connection with his early discipleship to Ingres and moved beyond his somewhat equivocal relation to the Impressionist group to become something else, an artist who suddenly seemed to have less in common with his nineteenth-century contemporaries than with the younger generation of the twentieth-century avant-garde.

It was in that show of monotypes, for example, that one was given a first glimpse of some of Degas’s landscapes of the 1890s—blurry stains of color, with barely discernible details and muted contours, pictures in which the medium (in this case, a combination of monotype and pastel) is given a clear and triumphant priority over the subject. In these landscapes the classicist who lived by the tenets of Ingres has disappeared, absorbed in a pictorial enterprise that at times makes even some of Monet’s late works look conventional by comparison. The figurative works—brothel scenes, female bathers, etc.—were no less astonishing, for they, too, seemed to usher in a vision that came to be identified as Expressionist.

Lionello Venturi was, I believe, the first to speak of Degas’s “Expressionism,” pointing out two of the essential elements that defined it: a growing commitment to the “simplification of forms” and a new “dramatic content,” the latter derived from the direct observation of forms of life theretofore not considered proper subjects for high art. Both of these elements were given their most original form in Degas’s pastels—works depicting (for the most part) female figures in homely, unexpected, and often unlovely postures. Degas indeed raised the pastel medium to the level of major art, an art that allowed him to carry his inspired draftsmanship into a realm of color and light in which the old classical contours were dissolved into forms at once more immediate and more “abstract” than anything he had achieved in his painting up until this time, and it promptly followed that his painting, in turn, would become more and more influenced by his work in pastels.

Well, we all know a lot more about this development now than we did thirty years ago, and in the marvelous exhibition that Richard Kendall has organized at the Art Institute of Chicago this fall under the title of “Degas: Beyond Impressionism,”1 late Degas has at last been accorded its definitive statement. This is the first major exhibition to concentrate on the last three decades of Degas’s long career. It brings together nearly a hundred works—paintings, pastels, drawings, and sculpture—some of which are well-known, to be sure, but many of which are not, and the show is accompanied by Mr. Kendall’s book-length catalogue, which may be the best single study ever devoted to Degas’s art. The exhibition is a joint venture of the Art Institute of Chicago and the National Gallery, London, where the show was seen earlier this year.

In Chicago, this survey of late Degas is given the additional advantage of a small introductory show of the earlier Degas, consisting of some twenty paintings, drawings, prints, and pastels from the Art Institute’s own capacious collections. Dubbed “The ‘Excellent Painter’: 1855–1886,” its title is drawn from a remark attributed to Renoir: “If Degas had died at fifty, he would have been remembered as an excellent painter, no more; it is after his fiftieth year that his work broadens out and that he really becomes Degas.” Degas was fifty-one in 1886 when he participated in the last Impressionist exhibition, and he was never again to collaborate in such controversial public events. While maintaining contact with dealers, patrons, and other artists, as Mr. Kendall reminds us, he nonetheless withdrew from playing an active role on the art scene. He died at the age of eighty-three in 1917, ten years after the creation of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, having himself become—in the spirit and style of his art, not merely by virtue of his age—a twentieth-century master.

Many of Degas’s most audacious drawings, pastels, paintings, and sculptures of nude female figures in the Expressionist mode date, in fact, from the same early years of the century that witnessed the emergence of Matisse’s Fauvism and the artistic course that led to Picasso’s Desmoiselles, and need to be seen as a parallel development. Degas spent many of his most intense working hours in this period drawing from a few favored models in the isolation of his studio. The models themselves were possessed of no special beauty or distinction. Indeed, they seem to have been chosen precisely because the lineaments of their naked bodies were so commonplace, so far removed from both the canons of classical taste and contemporary standards of feminine allure. For Degas, however, they were neither sexual objects nor subjects of social inquiry. He posed them, moreover, in the kind of unconventional and unbecoming postures that were certain to be seen by the received taste of the time as unattractive, if not provocatively “ugly.”

What, then, was the nature of Degas’s interest in this curious enterprise?

What, then, was the nature of Degas’s interest in this curious enterprise? Hard as it may now be for many people to believe in our own era of radical feminism and political correctness, which has spawned a whole generation of art historians for whom the politics of sexuality has supplanted an interest in the dynamics of artistic invention, Degas’s mission in this endeavor seems to have been entirely aesthetic. No less than Matisse in his leap into Fauvism or Picasso in his creation of Les Desmoiselles, what Degas was in search of in these “ugly” subjects was a whole new repertory of pictorial forms, and that certainly was what they yielded him.

It was, after all, the same kind of mission that had drawn him to lavish so much aesthetic attention on the subject of ballet dancers. So much sentimental twaddle has been devoted to that subject that we seem to have forgotten how little in the way of conventional standards of beauty is to be found in Degas’s paintings and drawings of the ballet. Degas’s ballet dancers are anything but paragons of physical grace or perfection. They are, for the most part, faceless creatures whose principal interest for us—as it was for Degas—lies in the formal gestures traced by the bulk and movement of their bodies in space. Degas took no more “personal” interest in those bodies than he brought to those of the horses he observed at the race track. He was indifferent to everything about them but what they might contribute to the further development of his own art.

This radical aesthetic attitude may strike us as unduly cold, even “inhuman,” but to think so is, I believe, to misunderstand not only Degas but much else in the great art of the past. It is not, in any case, the only way of thinking about an aesthetic intelligence of Degas’s persuation. Paul Valéry put the matter quite differently when, in writing about Degas, he observed that “Art, for him, was simply a series of problems in a more subtle kind of mathematics than the real one, a kind that no one has ever been able to expound, and whose existence is known to very few. He was always ready to talk about the science of art: he would say a picture was the result of a series of operations.” This is an observation that could just as easily be applied to Mondrian as to Degas, for it suggests a similar degree of detachment from anything but the artist’s essential mission.

Just how radically entrenched in the aesthetic dynamics of that mission Degas became is further illuminated by Mr. Kendall in his account of the artist’s working methods in these last years of his career. It turns out that many of the most inspired drawings and pastels of both dancers and nude models in this period were not, in fact, executed from direct observation but were the result of tracings that Degas made of earlier drawings which he then developed into far more elaborate new drawings and pictures. The forms wrested from direct observation of the figure became, in effect, the donnée for an entirely new conception, a new formal conception that, with the lavish application of pastel, often owed as much to color—and sometimes more to color—than to the contour or volume in the “original.”

“What charcoal is to Degas’s line and structure,” writes Mr. Kendall, “so pastel is to his color. . . . In pastel, Degas found a medium that propelled him towards extravagance, using the patient tracings of his draftsmanship as a springboard to the ‘orgies of color’ in his final decades.” It was a remarkable achievement for a master artist who began as a disciple of Ingres, and in giving us a definitive account of this “late” achievement the “Degas: Beyond Impressionism” exhibition is likely to be one of those events that compels us once again to revise the history of early twentieth-century modernism.

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  1.   “Degas: Beyond Impressionism” opened at the Art Institute of Chicago on September 28, 1996, and remains on view through January 5, 1997. The show was first seen at the National Gallery, London (May 22–August 26, 1996). A catalogue of the exhibition, written by Richard Kendall, has been published by the National Gallery, London, in association with the Art Institute of Chicago, and distributed by Yale University Press (324 pages, $50; $29.95 paper). Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 Number 3, on page 19
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