If Edgar Degas hadn’t made a single picture or modeled a single sculpture, he would still figure prominently in the history of nineteenth-century art as one of the most passionate, ambitious collectors of his generation. At his death in 1917, he owned more than five hundred paintings and drawings, and over five thousand prints—a special enthusiasm of his—by other artists, most of them acquired obsessively in his last years. He kept this vast hoard in his “musée,” a special room in his studio-house, where the handful of visitors allowed to penetrate the rather prickly artist’s privacy were privileged to view his most prized works, arranged on easels. Degas is supposed to have considered turning this private sanctum into a public museum, but the project remained unrealized. He continued to acquire pictures almost until the end of his life, even when he could no longer afford to do so comfortably, sometimes making complicated exchanges with dealers, trading examples of his own work for pictures that he coveted. For the most part, however, this enormous collection remained unknown, except by reputation, until after the artist’s death. It took eight separate auction sales, organized jointly by the illustrious dealers Bernheim-Jeune, Durand-Ruel, and Ambroise Vollard, held in Paris during 1918 and 1919, to dispose of Degas’s immense holdings—sales attended by curators of London’s National Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Louvre, along with a gang of eager private collectors and art dealers.

Even more remarkable than the size of Degas’s collection was the breadth of his taste.

Even more remarkable than the size of Degas’s collection was the breadth of his taste. He acquired, apparently with equal appetite and certainly equally acute judgment, paintings by old masters, Japanese prints, canvases and drawings by the nineteenth-century masters who most inspired him, lithographs by popular illustrators of his own time, works by his friends and contemporaries, and, what is most surprising, by his juniors. He kept for his planned museum, as well, a staggering number of his own paintings and pastels from every part of his career. (The enormous quantities of drawings, graphic works, and “secret” sculptures found in Degas’s studio after his death were apparently not intended for the museum; the painter is supposed to have instructed one of his heirs to destroy the countless working drawings and studies accumulated during his lifetime of making art, but fortunately, the request was ignored, so that most of this material was auctioned with the rest of the estate.)

In the spring of 1996, as a footnote to the initial showing of Degas: Beyond Impressionism (the excellent exhibition of the artist’s late work seen subsequently at the Art Institute of Chicago), the National Gallery, London, mounted a miniature survey of Degas’s legendary collection, forty-six key examples ranging from old-master canvases to works by the artists with whom Degas exhibited—Pissarro, Sisley, Cassatt, Morisot, Cézanne, and Manet—plus a few of the artist’s more unexpected acquisitions. Even this tantalizing fraction of the collection was fascinating and impressive, while the accompanying catalogue, which reproduced many other extraordinary works once owned by Degas, made you long for an expanded version of the show. This fall those longings have been gratified by a much more complete survey, “The Private Collection of Edgar Degas,” at the Metropolitan.1

At slightly more than three hundred works, it represents only a small portion of the collection (the Paris sales included about eight thousand items, more than three thousand of them by Degas himself), but the selection provides vivid evidence of the scope and size of the artist’s lovingly accumulated holdings. The curators have done some inspired sleuthing, unearthing collection stamps that unequivocally identify works as having belonged to Degas from underneath mats and frames, identifying pictures known only from not very accurate descriptions and sales records (there’s still disagreement about one of the exhibited canvases), and as a last resort, providing alternative examples for prints known to have been in the collection when the specific impression owned by Degas couldn’t be located. The show reunites many works that haven’t been together since they were last in the painter’s musée, although regrettably, a fair number of the most spectacular pieces included in the London mini-show didn’t come to New York, most of them replaced by equivalents or near-equivalents from this side of the Atlantic. It’s some compensation that the Met has added a wonderful section devoted to the Degases that the artist kept for himself—which is not to say that the absent pictures aren’t missed. The show is breathtaking. The pitiless eye and ferocious visual intelligence that made Degas Degas—the brilliant draughtsman, bold colorist, and keen observer who radically transformed form, content, and method in both two and three dimensions—also made him a collector of astonishing discernment. Picture after picture at the Met stops you in your tracks not because it seems absolutely typical of the artist who painted it (though many do), not because of what it suggests about Degas (though obvious connections exist), but simply because it is such a superb picture.

Many of Degas’s most prized possessions are familiar, since they now enrich museums everywhere. Many of the works exhibited in London, in fact, were drawn from the National Gallery’s acquisitions from the auctions of the artist’s estate. The Metropolitan was the only American institution to make purchases from these sales, but a surprising number of stellar works now in museums throughout this country turn out to have once been owned by Degas: our National Gallery’s glowing red, blue, and gold El Greco, St. Ildefonso (c. 1603–14); the Metropolitan’s dazzling Ingres portraits, M. and Mme. Jacques-Louis Leblanc (1823), the acquisition of which Degas described as “the event of my life as a collector”; the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ severe Cézanne portrait, Victor Chocquet (1877); the Museum of Modern Art’s broad-backed Gauguin nude, The Moon and the Earth (Hina Tefatou) (1893); and a great many important Impressionist and Post-Impressionist pictures in Chicago, Baltimore, Detriot, Boston, and elsewhere in the U.S. (A similar number of European museums can boast of significant works formerly in the collection, as well.)

The pictures that Degas chose to keep for his museum from among his own works are now equally celebrated and equally widely dispersed. They are some of his most powerful efforts, ranging from early, penetrating portraits of his family such as the Musée d’Orsay’s Bellili Family (1858–67), and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ Monsieur and Madame Edmondo Morbilli (c. 1865), to late masterpieces such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s impossibly spiraling nude seen from the back, After the Bath (c. 1896), and the Basel Kunstmuseum’s weird Fallen Jockey (c. 1896–98). Yet remarkable as this list of well-known pictures undoubtedly is, for every “famous work” once owned by Degas in the show at the Met, there are many others, equally fine, that come as a complete surprise: a wall of intimate Delacroix watercolors from his Moroccan journey in 1832, for example, that includes rarely seen gems, now divided among the Louvre, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, and some incredibly fortunate private collectors; there’s a little interior of a Moroccan house, with a paneled door, a narrow window, and a tiled moorish archway, rendered in broad, pale washes with scribbled color notations, that’s as economical and telling as any of Matisse’s Moroccan canvases—which were, of course, homages to Delacroix.

In addition to the abundant aesthetic pleasures provided by individual works—justification enough for several visits—the show is also provocative on many other levels. It raises absorbing questions about the history of taste, specificially about how the art of both the late nineteenth century and the past was regarded by sophisticated observers in Degas’s time, and how it is regarded now. It makes you consider the history of collecting, both public and private, in the early part of this century and today. But most important, the show makes you think in new ways about Degas, who requires a great deal of thinking about, as perhaps the most well known but most mysterious (and certainly the most contradictory) of modern masters. Confronted by works that this rigorous, self-critical artist selected for himself, it’s impossible not to speculate about why he acquired what.

Sometimes it seems fairly obvious. It’s hardly news that Degas the radical modernist was also a deeply conservative artist who revered both the paradigmatic, classicizing draughtsman, Ingres, and the paradigmatic Romantic painter, Delacroix. Degas’s own work, with its clear echos of Ingres’s incisive line and of Delacroix’s sensuous color, makes it plain that he traced his descent from both these twin pillars of traditional nineteenth-century painting, so it’s no surprise that both of them were well represented in his collection. Like a good curator, Degas shaped his holdings carefully. Not only did he acquire major canvases by both artists—by Ingres, the Met’s portraits of the Leblancs, for example, plus another equally imposing male portrait now in the National Gallery, London, and by Delacroix, an early full-length portrait of a dandy—but he also amassed large numbers of their finest drawings, studies, and watercolors, many relating to some of their most celebrated pictures. Degas acquired, as well, some small versions of their most important themes, so that his selections as a group echoed the whole trajectory of each artist’s development. The collection included, for example, drawings relating to Delacroix’s decorations for the Palais-Bourbon, sketches relating to his Liberty Leading the People, and an intense little entombment, as brushy and richly hued as any of the master colorist’s large-scale canvases. Degas’s collection included, too, a host of Ingres’s preparatory studies for The Apotheosis of Homer, for some of his best known portraits, plus small versions of the perfervid tableau in which Roger rescues Angelica from a sea monster and the creepy scene of a well-muscled nude Oedipus eye to eye with the sphinx, all surrogates for important works not within Degas’s reach.

The didactic aspect of Degas’s collection was obviously of great concern to him (he went to great trouble to obtain photographs of unavailable pictures by artists whose work he owned) but what becomes particularly visible in the Met’s exhibition is how fascinated he was by images that revealed his chosen ancestors’ process. The obvious, psychologically loaded inference is that Degas acquired what he did in order to possess the attributes of his distinguished predecessors, through a sophisticated kind of sympathetic magic: he would be able to paint and draw the way they did if he possessed images that showed them naked, at work. That’s the sort of explanation you would find in certain kinds of pre-postmodernist critical biographies, but while no one would dispute the complexities of the collecting impulse (at least one recent study has declared it to be downright pathological), anyone who has ever spent time with serious painters and sculptors knows that they study—and if they can, live with--particular works of art by other artists for very specific and fairly straightforward reasons. They choose works that nourish their own art because they provide something that can be extracted and assimilated.

One simple, empirical answer to why Degas sought out the pictures that he did is that he found in them useful clues to how to achieve his own goals and confirmation of the significance of his own quest. As Ann Dumas, one of the curators of the Met’s show and the organizer of the earlier exhibition in London, has pointed out, there are ample precedents for artist-collectors acquiring works that served them as inspiration—Rubens, for example, had a notable collection of old masters—but, she reminds us, Degas acquired most of his holdings at the end of his career, not at the beginning; nevertheless, Dumas notes that “his collecting of drawings of details can be seen as a continuation of his early practice of copying, which provided ideas for poses throughout his career.”

The notes Degas made in his inventory, cited in the catalogue and displayed in the Met’s installation, offer interesting information about his choices. Provenance mattered to him. He was especially pleased if a picture had belonged to another artist; he recorded, when he acquired El Greco’s St. Ildefonso, that the picture “hung for a long time over Millet’s bed.” But what seems to have been primary, if you go on the evidence of the Met’s show, were the merits of the individual work. An innovative printmaker himself, he owned large numbers of lithographs, a relatively new medium at the time, by the popular illustrators of the day, Daumier and Gavarni. Degas seems to have appreciated the way both artists could tell complicated stories about modern life in purely visual terms, almost exclusively through the actions of their protagonists. (It’s worth remembering, in this connection, that for most of his life, Degas was principally a figure painter.) Daumier’s ability to render telling poses and conjure up personality with a minimum of means—an assured, economical line and masses of black and white tone—was plainly appealing. In fact, Degas admired Daumier so much that he also owned several of his paintings and a great many of his drawings, an enthusiasm that he shared with Henry James, which suggests questions about possible similarities in the nature of narrative in Degas’s images and James’s novels.

Gavarni’s prints were no less trenchant than Daumier’s, although he was a slightly less expressive draughtsman, but Degas took his work very seriously; Gavarni, he thought, “knew about women.” Interestingly, the Gavarni images at the Met, mostly from a series dealing with various categories of available women at the fringes of society, all show their female subjects with their heads turned away from the viewer. Their attitudes are at once reminiscent of the seated models in Corot’s late studio interiors and the woman in Degas’s most highly charged narrative picture, the enigmatic bedroom scene, sometimes identified as an image from the novel Thérèse Raquin, known variously as Interior or The Rape (c. 1868–69, Philadelphia Museum of Art)—a painting that Degas kept for his planned museum.

Sometimes friendship and proximity seem to have had something to do with what Degas acquired. He was close to Mary Cassatt and owned particularly good examples of her work in various media. Degas and Manet sustained a long and sometimes thorny friendship, united by similarities of class, ambition for their art, taste, and above all, deep admiration and regard for one another’s work. The connection survived such moments of difficulty as the famous incident of Manet’s cropping his wife’s likeness out of Degas’s double portrait of the couple—Degas was outraged, demanded the picture back, added a strip of canvas to replace the missing portion, and then left the picture as it was. (He also returned a still life Manet had given him.) But in the more than two decades that Degas lived on after Manet’s premature death, he continued to acquire his friend’s work. Degas eventually owned virtually all of Manet’s graphic production, and a significant group of paintings, from a rapid, intimate portrait of Madame Manet with the family cat (named, the exhibition texts tell us, Zizi) to a cool, rather formal full-length portrait of a self-satisfied bourgeois in a garden, a vigorously brushed composition of lush green foliage, light-dappled path, and dapper gent, hands thrust into his natty blue coat pockets, that was inexplicably rejected by the sitter.

The most compelling of Degas’s Manets at the Met is probably a fierce, savagely brushed portrait of Berthe Morisot in mourning. Degas’s favorite is supposed to have been a shimmering pastel of Madame Manet reclining on a blue sofa, not simply, I suspect, because of his own fascination with the medium, but because of its audacious composition—a stripped-down, frontal structure with space implied only by minimal notes of shadow—and its bare-bones palette: luminous blue, gold, white, and a range of greys, punctuated with slivers of black. Perhaps Degas’s most significant acquisition not at the Met was the remains of Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian (c. 1867–68, National Gallery, London). Degas tracked down and reassembled four surviving fragments of the huge picture, which had been damaged, and, because of its condition, divided and dispersed by Manet’s heirs after his death.

The links of friendship, sympathy, and esteem detailed in the catalogue’s essays, such as the one on Degas and Manet by Mari Kálmán Meller and Juliet Wilson-Barreau, may help to explain why Degas acquired some of the works that he selected by his fellow artists, but it is obvious that aesthetic, rather than personal, considerations dominated his choices. Degas owned first-rate pictures by the most difficult of his contemporaries, Cézanne, even though their relationship, discussed by Richard Kendall, was barely cordial. That the fastidious Parisian Degas and the rough-hewn Provençal Cézanne never much liked each other personally is hardly surprising, given the differences in their personalities, their classes, and, you might think, their approaches to painting—at least superficially. But Degas acquired Cézanne’s work in some depth, in various media, as was his habit, including the portrait of Choquet, a self-portrait, a gritty, uningratiating reclining Venus and Cupid, and a strange little Bather with Outstretched Arms (c. 1883, Jasper Johns). (The first and last of this list are on view at the Met.) It’s a tribute to both the power of Cézanne’s art and the discrimination of Degas’s taste that the painter, who had virtually ignored still life as a subject throughout his career, also acquired four of his colleague’s rigorous pictures of apples. Obviously, Degas grasped fully the deeply classical foundations of his colleague’s art, the sense of underlying geometry and disciplined passion that both animates and orders Cézanne’s work from first to last. Degas must have been aware, too, as he was with Manet, that Cézanne was one of the rare artists who met him at his own level, someone whose originality and pictorial intelligence challenged his own. Kendall’s essay underscores these and other even more subtle connections between these two giants of early modernism and points out evidence of Cézanne’s influence on Degas, particularly on his late work.

Degas’s taste remained adventurous.

Degas’s taste remained adventurous. His eye for the work of artists a generation younger and apparently with very different conceptions of what a picture could be was no less sure than it was for pictures by the masters he had revered from his own youth; witness his startling acquisition of works by Gauguin and Van Gogh. Degas’s choice of Gauguin’s pictures is particularly notable: among others, a lush Tahitian landscape now in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, the massive standing nude in the Museum of Modern Art mentioned earlier, the economical Woman of the Mango (Vahine no te vi) (1892, Baltimore Museum of Art), and the hierarchical beach scene, Day of the God (Mahana no atua) (1894, Art Institute of Chicago)—although there is some doubt as to whether the last picture is really the one Degas owned. Degas was both a major fan and a major supporter of Gauguin. Not only was he one of the few buyers at the studio show the younger artist organized to raise money for his last sojourn in Tahiti, but he made enough purchases to almost singlehandedly finance the trip.

Images of the figure, not unexpectedly, made up the bulk of Degas’s acquisitions, but the landscapes and still lifes he owned are frequently as compelling as any of his carefully chosen portraits, nudes, or genre scenes. At the Met, Degas’s Pissarros range from a marvelous selection of etchings and acquatints to a wonderfully crisp, radiant view of the countryside near Pontoise. A couple of Delacroix’s cloud studies, although modest, are among the most arresting pictures in the show, while a single rock-solid Corot, doing duty for many more of the painter’s early works once owned by Degas, simply makes you wish for more.

In fact, despite the relatively large size of the show, despite the well-balanced profile of Degas’s collection that it provides, I kept wishing for more throughout, not just for more of the acknowledged masterpieces that stud the exhibition, but for more private works that reveal glimpses into the elusive Degas’s thinking—works by lesser known artists like the show’s vigorous drawing by Forain; or the wholly unexpected little landscape panel by de Nittis; or the intimate, affectionately observed images of cats (and lions) by Delacroix and Manet. Most revealing, perhaps, of all the works Degas selected for his museum—both by others and by himself—are pictures that document one artist’s probing study of another’s efforts. Degas kept his own copies of pictures by Delacroix and Mantegna. He acquired a sheet of Delacroix’s studies of heads after Goya and one of his oil copies after Rubens, several of Manet’s etchings after Velázquez, and, perhaps most significantly, Gauguin’s watercolor copy of Manet’s Olympia, a picture that Degas apparently loved. It’s almost possible to reconstruct Degas’s sense of the history of art from these selections or, at least, his sense of the continuity and transformation of a tradition, through a kind of chain of admiration linking artist to artist: Gauguin copies Manet, Manet copies Velázquez, Degas copies Delacroix, Delacroix copies Rubens—art history on the hoof.

This wonderful show is accompanied by an eminently readable catalogue chock full of fascinating information, with essays by such experts on French nineteenth-century art and distinguished Degas scholars as Theodore Reff, Gary Tinterow, and Françoise Cachin, among others. Essays explore Degas’s activity as a collector, in general, and in particular, his relationship to those artists whose work is most prominently represented in the collection, from “ancestors” such as Ingres and Delacroix, to contemporaries such as Manet, Cézanne, Daumier, and Gauguin. There is absorbing material on the estate sales, on critical reaction at the time, and, not surprisingly, on the Met’s role at the auctions. It is all interesting and enlarges our understanding, but in the end, the most persuasive evidence is the art that Degas chose, evidence that serves to enhance the self-portrait provided by his own work. The well-selected survey of Degas as a collector at the Met sharpens our image of a complex, elusive individual, a dedicated modernist consciously linked with the past, possessor of an exacting eye and an unquenchable appetite for aesthetic challenge.

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  1.   “The Private Collection of Edgar Degas” opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, on October 1, 1997, and remains on view through January 11, 1998. A catalogue of the exhibition, by Ann Dumas, Colta Ives, Susan Alyson Stein, and Gary Tinterow, has been published by the Metropolitan Museum and distributed by Harry N. Abrams (368 pages, $60; $45 paper). A summary catalogue serving as a checklist of Degas’s entire collection is also available (152 pages, $45; $35 paper). Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 Number 3, on page 41
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