Degas: Drawings and Sketchbooks

September 24, 2010, through January 23, 2011
Image of Emilie Bécat at the Café des Ambassadeurs

Edgar Degas (1834–1917), a founding member of the Impressionist group who was distinguished by his Realist tendencies, is renowned for his vigorous images of dancers, performers, and theater scenes in paintings, sculptures, and works on paper. Throughout his career, he used drawing in dynamic and varied ways to explore these recurring subjects.

The exhibition features some twenty exceptional drawings by Degas along with two of his sketchbooks, which demonstrate the iconic artist's characteristic daring and inventiveness. The show includes works depicting quintessential Degas subjects—from his earliest portraits of himself, family members, and friends to his later intensive studies of dancers and performers.

Degas began studying law in Paris in 1853, but he soon turned his attention to copying works in the Louvre. Later, he entered the studio of Louis Lamothe, who was a pupil of Ingres and also studied at the École des Beaux-Arts. He left Paris in July 1856 to study independently in Rome where he filled sketchbooks and sheets with studies of models and copies of old masters. Study of a Male Nude dates from his first year in Rome and is an example of the artist's early academic efforts.

Thirty-eight sketchbooks by Degas have survived essentially intact. They cover the period between 1853 and 1886 and constitute the most significant sustained record of any Impressionist artist. The show includes two sketchbooks, one from early in Degas's career during his first trip to Italy and the other datable to the height of his fame in Paris. The early sketchbook contains diligent student work, such as sketches of antique statuary and copies of Renaissance frescoes and paintings. In the later notebook, the subjects range from the whimsical to the thoughtful, with quick portraits of dinner guests, sketches of dancers, and scenes from a Turkish bath.

Also on view from Degas's early years in Italy are Self-Portrait and Details of Hand and Eye (ca. 1856) and Self-Portrait (ca. 1856). These two studies in black chalk were private exercises in proficiency and discipline and remained in portfolios in the artist's studio until after his death. Another work, Self-Portrait in a Brown Vest (1856), a more tentative exploration in oil on paper, reveals Degas's continued use of himself as subject as he came to grasp the rudiments of portraiture.

In addition to self-portraiture, Degas depicted his friends and family throughout his career in works such as Portrait of Paul and Marguerite-Claire Valpinçon (1861) and Rosa Adelaide Aurora Degas, the Duchess Morbilli (ca. 1857). Paul Valpinçon was a friend of Degas from his school days, and Rosa Degas was the eldest sister of the artist's father.

Degas's much-heralded explorations of dancers—in rehearsal, on stage, and at rest—began in the 1870s and intensified during the ensuing decades. This period also marked the beginning of his success as an artist. One of Degas's principal concerns as a draftsman was analyzing the movements and gestures of the female body. On view are several drawings featuring dancers, including Three Studies of a Dancer (ca. 1880), easily recognizable as the study for the celebrated wax sculpture Little Dancer, Fourteen Years Old depicting the young dancer Marie van Goethem. In this large sheet, the artist studied her from three different angles, attempting to understand the figure in the round in preparation for sculpting it.

Other examples of drawings with dancers include Seated Dancer (ca. 1871), one of the studies for Dance Class at the Opéra on the Rue le Peletier now in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, as well as Two Studies of Dancers (ca. 1873), Dancer with Arms Outstretched (ca. 1878), and Two Studies of a Ballet Dancer (ca. 1872).

Though noted for his attention to the female figure, Degas executed many studies of grouped horses and jockeys from which he would use figures in later compositions. Group of Four Jockeys, with its play of intersecting lines of movement, conveys the tension and frequent conflicts in the paddock before a race. The drawing also provides an exceptional example of Degas's remarkable inventiveness as he reworked and revised a particular scene over a significant span of years. He initially executed this compositional study circa 1868 and then returned to it about a decade later to combine the elements in the last stages of preparation for the painting Racecourse Scene.

Later in his career, Degas experimented with mixing drawing media and printmaking techniques as seen in Emilie Bécat at the Café des Ambassadeurs. He began the drawing in 1885 using an impression from his 1877–78 lithograph of a concert at Café des Ambassadeurs, which he extended along the bottom and right edges, and drew over in dense strokes of pastel. He then added the three female spectators in the foreground, which significantly altered the composition of the print. The women's dark silhouettes in shades of blue and ochre are contrasted against the bright pink dress of Emilie Bécat. Degas used the range of pastels to capture the effects of various light sources in this nocturnal scene and suggest the difference between the mundane and the magical world of the theater.

At the Theater; the Duet (1877–79) is another example of how the artist expertly combined pastel and print. Degas first produced a monotype—a unique print made from drawing in ink on a metal or glass plate—of two singers on stage seen from behind with a view to the audience. He then enlivened the print with richly colored pastels. The subject in this work is again Emilie Bécat, who appears with another of Degas's favorite performers, Theresa (Emma Valadon).

Also on view is Landscape with Path Leading to a Copse of Trees (ca. 1890). While Degas is not known as a landscape artist, this work demonstrates how he further explored the medium of monotype. This sheet was made during the artist's visit to the painter and printmaker Georges Jeanniot (1846–1934) in the village of Diénay near Dijon. There Degas recalled scenery from the drive through the Burgundian countryside and produced about fifty monotype landscapes. To create this drawing, he used oil paint (and apparently his fingers) to indicate a few lines of landscape on the plate and printed one or two proofs, and hung them to dry. Later, he completed the composition with a rich layer of pastel.

This exhibition is made possible by the William C. Bullitt Foundation.

Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Emilie Bécat at the Café des Ambassadeurs, 1877–85, pastel over lithograph. Thaw Collection, 1997.88.