What does one of the founding fathers of Impressionism and a nineteenth century Scottish shipping magnate have in common? Art. Namely one produced it and the other acquired it voraciously. The artist is question is Edgar Degas and the industrialist, Sir William Burrell, who was an avowed collector and who amassed one of the finest collections of Degas pastels in the world. He gifted these to the city that made him rich – Glasgow – in 1944, and here they have remained on public display until now, in the centenary of Degas’ death, when a selection of them have travelled south to London’s National Gallery to be joined by some of the capital’s own Degas works.
The exhibition is divided into three sections, displayed in three separate rooms which broadly correspond to the three abiding areas of interest of Degas’ artistic maturity – Modern Life, Dancers and Private Worlds. These are notionally chronological and of increasing intimacy with their subjects, moving from the very public spheres of café society and the race track, through the back stage practice of ballet dancers to déshabillé ladies at their toilette. There is almost a sense that in choosing increasingly intimate subjects Degas is revealing truths about himself which he then shares with the viewer. Indeed some of these later pictures shocked his contemporaries who thought that the depiction of such casual but private gestures was improper. As is still the case, there is often a gulf between how a public likes to see itself and what the reality is.
Degas started his career as a history painter but in his thirties changed tack. It was as a chronicler of modern life that he was to find his true métier. Just as a student of the Old Masters he selected detail to copy rather than a whole composition, as a painter of contemporary scenes he often focused on the merest gesture. In In the Tuileries Gardens (circa 1880), a fashionably dressed young woman raises her parasol, shading her face. We don’t know what she is looking at and she is cropped at the waist, as is the figure to her right – sliced right down the middle also. The scene is of such a particular moment in time captured, un-dramatic but psychologically astute, that it prefigures the work of the great photojournalists of the twentieth century such as Henri Cartier-Bresson. Indeed, Degas was to become an early proponent of the camera, using photographs both as memory aids for his pictures and as a form in itself.
One of the masterpieces of the Burrell collection is Jockeys in the Rain (1883-6). In it a group of jockeys, imp-like in their coloured tunics on their tall, spare steeds, is drawn up on the starting line of a grass track. The canvas is slashed from top left to bottom right with all the action squeezed into the right hand side of the diagonal. Falling diagonally in the other direction, like multiple attempts at tiny St Andrew’s Crosses, is the rain, gashes of liquescence bleeding with the green strokes of grass, bent the same way. The empty left hand corner, together with the impatient gestures of the horses, create a terrific sense of anticipation. One can almost feel the hot, pungent breath of the horses amidst the cooling drops of Parisian rain.
In Woman looking through Field Glasses (1869) one is almost startled by the sense that one has turned around and found oneself the subject of inspection. Here Degas confronts the viewer with the voyeuristic nature of what they do. All painting is about looking and seeing and all paintings desire to be looked at. A gallery is a space where we are encouraged to do what, in other circumstances, might seem brazen or unseemly.
Degas is one of the more prying and insistent of observers. His vision is often blocked by a staircase or the backs of heads but these intrusions make the truncated sights even more rewarding. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his ballet pictures where he gives us views, not of the main stage where all can sit for a few francs, but from the wings or at the barre where girls contort themselves or rub swollen feet and where black caparisoned chaperones lurk in the shadows.
Degas himself was a passionate ballet goer. The Paris Opera with its corps de ballet was close to his studio; in 1885 alone, he was recorded as having attended fifty four performances. His obvious fascination with the female form is reflected in the extraordinary variety of movement he depicted in his subjects. Although he shows the repetition of moves, none of these are entirely the same. He suggests infinite possibilities.
As Degas advanced in his career his use of colour became bolder and his use of line more abstract. With his dance pictures it was almost as if he was attempting to capture the vitality of movement itself. In the second pastel of the Russian Dancers (1899), the full skirted peasant women become abstract whirls of colour.
From the 1880s on Degas turned increasingly to pastel as his medium of choice. In his hands it was most definitely not a poorer option. Advances in pigment production meant that by the end of the nineteenth century a skilled artist could produce pictures every bit as gorgeous as traditional oils. And Degas did. Although the aesthetic is different, at a distance it is often difficult to tell the difference between a Degas oil and a Degas pastel.
From the 1880s too Degas graduated to the restrained, more intimate scenes of women at their toilette. It was as if the frenetic energy of the ballet had begun to exhaust him and he was seeking quieter inspiration. In After the Bath, Woman drying herself (1890-5) the young subject is seated, one hand holding a towel to her head, the other resting on the back of the chair. Typical of Degas’ toilette scenes, her face is turned away, whether out of modesty or through the suggestion of form and colour, that she is materially of the same stuff as the chair, towel and carpets, part of the fabric of the world.
There are very few depictions of men in the exhibition but this must have been because Burrell chose these as his preferences. Degas was in fact interested in the relationship between the sexes and often portrayed the subtle tensions between men and women. He himself never married, believing that “the artist must live alone, and his private life must remain unknown.” His final years were hampered by failing eyesight and his truculent views which alienated most of his friends. He ceased working in 1912, five years before the end.
It is not known whether he ever met Burrell or what he may have made of the collection, but surely he would have been pleased that so many of his works were kept together and gifted to the public for all to see. It is certainly a fine introduction to one of the great artists of the nineteenth century.
Drawn in Colour: Degas at the National Gallery, London until 7th May 2018. For more information please visit the website.