Degas made drawings, paintings, sculpture and prints. He experimented and pushed the boundaries of all these disciplines. He was an innovator who experimented with media and surfaces. He was a true modernist, but like all truly great artists his practice was based on his supreme talents as a draughtsman. This allowed him to link the tradition of the classical art of the past, and embrace the work of greats such as Manet, whilst becoming a leading light in the Impressionist movement. The first Impressionist Exhibition was in 1874. They subsequently held seven additional shows, the last in 1886. Degas took a leading role in organizing the exhibitions, and showed his work in all but one of them, this despite his persistent conflicts with others in the group.
He was an impressionist by association, but to me also so much more.
Forget for a while the brilliance of the pastels of ballet dancers and woman bathing and combing their hair. The period of Degas that I most enjoy looking at is from the 1860s.The painting I have chosen to highlight is from that period. It has an ethereal quality, and such an air of transcendence in its fleeting beauty. In that sense it is impressionism, but it is also rooted in a classical past so that, for me, it is at the same time solid and timeless.
The painting, entitled Emma Dobigny, is from 1869. It is a small oil painting on a panel, just 30.5 x 26.5cm. The real name of the subject was Marie Emma Thuilleux, a model who Degas knew between 1865 and 1869 when she lived in Montmartre. This painting is absolutely exquisite, so simple and delicate. His rendition of soft light falling on the cheek bone of his model is so gentle and subtle, totally bewitching and beguiling. Tonally the difference between the flesh of the girl and the background is almost non-existent, and yet the profile is assured and definite because of the finest trace of a line seen particularly clearly where it defines her nose. One of the great techniques Degas employed was to softly blur edges and contrast this with sharper more focused and defined passages of painting. The girl’s hair and coat are softly defined against the background, along with the chair or sofa back; her profile by contrast is precisely rendered. The flick of white on her collar is balanced by the area of white on the wall behind her head.
Great paintings leave me despairing, not just because of the level of technical skill employed but because they leave you wondering how is it possible for the artist to make paint convey such levels of emotion, and capture both beauty and truth without leaving traces of the struggle or effort involved in their creation.