The great French diarist Jules Renard (1864-1910) had small interest in non-literary art forms. When Ravel approached him wanting to set five of his Histoires naturelles, Renard couldn’t see the point; he didn’t forbid it, but declined to go to the premiere. He sat through Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and found it a ‘sombre bore’, its plot ‘puerile’. His attitude to painting was a little more responsive: he admired (and knew) Lautrec, and approved of Renoir; but he found Cézanne barbarous and Monet’s waterlilies ‘girly’. This was less philistinism than a robust admission of his own areas of non-response. And he did write one wonderful thing about painting, on 8 January 1908: ‘When I am in front of a picture, it speaks better than I do.’
It is a chastening remark, because most of us, when in front of a picture, do not give the picture time enough to speak. We talk at it, about it, of it, to it; we want to forcibly understand it, get its measure, colonise it, ‘friend’ it. We compare it to other pictures it reminds us of; we read the label on the wall, confirm that it is, say, pastel on monotype, and check which gallery or plutocrat owns it. But unless we are highly trained, we don’t know enough to recognise more than roughly how the picture relates to the history of painting (because it always does, even if negatively). Instead, we hose it with words and move on.
The centenary year of Edgar Degas’s death might be a good time to rein in our chatter. Though Renard does not seem to have come across Degas, or commented on his work, the two had similar (and similarly only half-true) reputations: as bearish plain-speakers who preferred to be left alone. And Degas would have approved Renard’s verbal humility in the face of a picture. As he put it to George Moore:
Do you think you can explain the merits of a picture to those who do not see them? … I can find the best and clearest words to explain my meaning, and I have spoken to the most intelligent people about art, and they have not understood … but among people who understand, words are not necessary, you say humph, he, ha, and everything has been said.
In Degas’s opinion, ‘literature has only done harm to art’; writing about art only made artists more vain, and didn’t advance public taste. Those who went around ‘being artists’ might acquire fame, but what was the good of fame if it didn’t help the art? He despised those who chased honours and decorations. Degas was willing to forgive his old friend Manet the strange, boyish ambition of wanting to be recognised on every Parisian omnibus; but as he said scathingly to Whistler, ‘My dear friend, you conduct yourself in life just as if you had no talent at all.’
Zola was Manet’s great public promoter, and Manet returned the favour with a blazing portrait of the novelist. When Zola was asked his opinion of Degas, he grandly replied: ‘I cannot accept a man who shuts himself up all his life to draw a ballet-girl as ranking co-equal in dignity and power with Flaubert, Daudet and Goncourt.’ The disrespect was vigorously reciprocated: Degas thought the omnivorous Rougon-Macquart series amounted to little more than Zola ‘working his way through the Paris telephone directory’. But it went deeper than this. Degas’s opinions on fiction were private; Zola’s theories about art were public. And Degas took particular exception to Zola’s central belief that art was fundamentally an expression of ‘temperament’. As Valéry put it in Degas Danse Dessin, for Degas a work of art consisted of ‘an unspecified number of studies, followed by a series of operations’. Zola, for all his high naturalism, was a Romantic when it came to motivation; Degas essentially classical. And Degas further claimed that in creating the ambitious, all-sacrificing, and finally suicidal painter Claude Lantier, Zola was trying ‘to prove the great superiority of writers over artists’.
In matching painter to writer, we might presume that as Manet was to Zola, so Degas was to Mallarmé: hermetic, lofty, unpublic. But this only takes us so far: Degas valued Mallarmé’s friendship and company but thought his work ‘the fruit of a gentle disorder which had taken hold of a marvellously gifted poetic mind’. Valéry regarded Degas as a ‘pure artist’ who was ‘incredibly ignorant of everything in life that couldn’t either figure in a work, or serve it directly’. The diarist Harry Kessler put the same point differently, after meeting him in Paris in June 1907: ‘He looks like a distinguished grandfather, or rather the face is that of a man of the world – but the eye – the eye is that of an apostle untouched by the world.’ By this time Degas had become, as Valéry put it, ‘ever more farouche, absolutist and insupportable’. Or, in Kessler’s summary, at the end of that evening, ‘a fanatical, maniacal fool’.
Degas loved talking about art, but hated others talking about it (especially writers). Not that this has ever stopped anyone. The more artists hide themselves from the public, the more they bury themselves in their art – and also, the greater that art, the freer the gossip and the easy opinions. Cézanne lived in a quarry, so he and his work were therefore ‘barbarous’. Degas was equally rebarbative to the unwanted caller – his studio was his quarry – and rarely showed his work publicly. Well, there must be something wrong with him, mustn’t there? He wasn’t long dead and the contents of his studio only just sold when Degas and His Model appeared in two parts in Le Mercure de France. An as-told-to by a certain ‘Pauline’, written up in the third person by ‘Alice Michel’, who may have been the novelist ‘Rachilde’ (co-editor and co-founder of Le Mercure), it is not so much kiss-and-tell as pose-and-tell. And it is a curious text to evaluate, the more so when rendered into American English, with Degas as a ‘cranky and demanding old buzzard’, an ‘old nutjob’, and so on. The unidentified Pauline – he had three different models of that name – sat and stretched for him over a period of ten years, though her narrative is confined to 1910, by which time Degas’s blindness had restricted him largely to sculpture. She describes him as difficult, moody, rude, anti-Semitic, foul-mouthed and tight-fisted; he also demanded that she pose in awkward, painful positions, and when using a reduction compass would sometimes scratch her with its points. No painter is a hero to his model. Even so, the fact that she remained with him for a decade takes some of the edge off her complaints. Degas provided regular employment, would pay her when he didn’t feel up to working, and at times could be charming, funny, informal. She admits a rather self-congratulatory fondness for him as he struggles against artistic extinction, while reporting back to us on his need to pee half a dozen times a night: he often had a urinary infection for which he drank an infusion of cherry-tree bark. It’s also worth pointing out that there wasn’t any Weinstein stuff going on – ‘He was always perfectly proper with his models,’ Pauline confirms. Unlike, say, Puvis de Chavannes, who used to ask his models: ‘How’d you like to see a great man’s cock?’
I doubt anybody nowadays thinks much about Puvis’s cock – or his vanity – when gazing up at his vast and pallid murals. But critics and gallery-goers have been more inclined to allow what they know, and what they think they know, to seep into their viewing of Degas’s work. They would be wise to remember what Valéry wrote of this habit:
Collect all the facts that can be collected about the life of Racine and you will never learn from them the art of his verse. All criticism is dominated by the outworn theory that the man is the cause of the work as in the eyes of the law the criminal is the cause of the crime. Far rather are they both the effects.
The (unintentionally) funniest moment in Degas and His Model comes when Pauline sneaks a look at a statuette Degas is doing of her:
She would’ve been more forbearing [about his other faults] if at least Degas had actually copied her features, which, so she’d been told, were elegant and pretty. But he gave the statuette the same vulgar expression that had shocked her already when she saw it repeated over and over in his drawings.
Poor Pauline! Though she might have been a little cheered had she known that her indignation at Degas’s lack of courtliness had already received imperial endorsement. In 1883, the Princesse Mathilde, cousin of Napoleon III and a noted salon-collector of artists and writers, responded to the mention of Degas’s name with the outburst: ‘Can you understand anybody having the impudence to paint a nose or a mouth as he does? … Oh, I should like to smash his head against his pictures!’
Every man is an expert on the female nude; every woman and princess too. And our expertise comes with so many preconceptions, many created by the history of art itself. But has there ever been a major painter whose portrayal of women has received more abuse than Degas? Picasso, perhaps, but that usually sprang from a jokey – and largely male – insecurity about modern art itself (men of a certain age may remember that public lavatory graffito of two sketched cubes, captioned ‘Balls to Picasso’). Yet Degas’s work has been held to be an offence against both art and women, and against society’s understanding of them: the violent press reaction to his Petite Danseuse was a prime example of this. The specific offence may shift, but the criminal remains in the dock. Sometimes for the ‘impudent’ sin against painting’s sempiternal idealisation of women as smooth, curved (indeed ‘curvaceous’, as the tabloids prefer) and hairless expressions of perfection. Sometimes – as with Pauline – the sin is against women’s sense of themselves and amour-propre; also, Parisianly, against the consensus that Frenchwomen are, by genes and training, the chicest women on earth. Sometimes there is a straight accusation of misogyny. Huysmans, for instance, who generally understood and applauded Degas, thought that he ‘painted dancers with horror’. In Degas and His Model, as it happens (and with a certain implausibility), Pauline tells Degas that ‘The other day I read a pamphlet by Huysmans in which he had plenty to say about you.’ The painter replies: ‘Huysmans? He’s an ass… He doesn’t know the first thing about it. But all these literary hacks think they’re perfectly capable of writing art criticism. As if painting wasn’t the least accessible thing in the world!’
And, as if the connection between private opinions, private ‘temperament’ and the art that results from ‘a series of operations’ was easily traced. Much is made of Degas’s obiter dictum about wanting to observe women as if through ‘the keyhole’, and of the fact that in many of his nudes the model’s face is turned away from us. Keyhole – voyeur – perv – obliterator of women’s individuality: so runs the easy, moralising elision. But you could – and I would – argue the exact opposite: that these pictures are not portraits anyway (or not of the kind Pauline hoped for), that the women in them are not victims of the male gaze but oblivious to it, that Degas is painting women in their private moments of bathing and towelling and combing and brushing, when their thoughts are inward, and we the viewers are irrelevant to them. Further, that even when the women portrayed are not hired naked models but clothed women in everyday life, Degas often depicts them in intimate, enigmatic exchanges which exclude us. Two of the most powerful pictures in the Fitzwilliam show are At the Café (1875-77), in which two women sit at a table, one turning away in evident anguish (Grief? Heartbreak? A sudden diagnosis?), the other, toying with a flower, beaming sympathy yet unable to help; and Three Women at the Races (1885), a large pastel from Denver, in which the central figure has her back turned entirely against us, and the other two are in quarter and three-quarter profile. In both pictures ‘we’ are irrelevant; Degas is painting female complicity, female separateness, in a profoundly interested way.
Once you notice this theme of complicity, both social and professional, you see it everywhere: in two women examining an item of jewellery (at the Fitzwilliam), two men in a café crouched over a newspaper (at the National Gallery), two ballet girls with their mothers (or teachers) preparing for a dance examination (Fitzwilliam), two women in a theatre box (NG), a pair of overworked laundresses (NG). And at the Musée d’Orsay: two dancers, resting, chatting, one gripping the sole of her foot; two bearded engravers (Desboutin and Lepic) in parallel profile, gazing with fraternal intensity at what is just out of shot, the whole picture rightly made from dark, coppery hues. Or the initially deceptive portrait of Mme Jeantaud, left profile luminous, primped and poised for a social outing, apparently talking to an altogether sketchier, darker-hued woman. But no, the other woman is her reflection in a mirror, and the picture is about the relationship between the outer and inner self, the bright public face and the darker private one. And think of Degas’s most reproduced painting – L’Absinthe. What is that if not a portrait of the dumbfaced complicity of two stupefied drinkers?
In Degas’s early years he often painted people looking directly back at him (and us): sometimes, it is the artist himself who does so. There are many self-portraits, some suave, some anxious; but he gave up self-representation altogether at the age of 31. It was as if he had worked out that people are not only more themselves – more at ease – but also more self-revealing when they are not constantly reminded that they are being watched. His great (and largest) portrait The Bellelli Family is dated 1858-67 (covering Degas from the age of 24 to 33). It show four figures all gazing in different directions, none meeting another’s eye; Giovanna, the daughter on the left, is the only one looking straight at us. The most powerful figure is that of the mother, standing behind her young daughters, staring out of shot to our right with a brooding imperiousness. But the d’Orsay show also has many preliminary drawings for the painting, of which the fullest, dated c.1858-59, has the mother looking full-face towards us. Redirecting her head, giving the family four separate gaze-directions, sets up stronger lines of force which also hint at family disharmony, at non-complicity. No doubt Degas’s process of working-towards was more complex and hazardous than we imagine; but this ‘decision’ – if it was as intellectual as that – seems rigorously correct. Nor is it just a question of profile versus full-face: backs can be as aesthetically interesting as fronts, if not more so. The Paris show contains a drawing of Ingrean exquisiteness – a study for Semiramis Building Babylon – of a woman climbing into a chariot. No head, no hands either – it’s all about the drapery, and how the body shows through it. And the front cover of the Paris catalogue features the delicate, partial Jeune Femme en buste vue de dos (c.1860-62).
Degas’s original master was Ingres, whose women – odalisques, Venuses, goddesses – were sculpted, depilated and deformed into a kind of perfection: deformed by being given more vertebrae than was humanly possible, by extending the torso, broadening the bottom, narrowing the legs. Valéry was right to say that an Ingres nude often resembled a plesiosaur. But few complained about Ingres. Degas, on the other hand, portrayed women who were not ideal, who were tired, who were bored, who had an itch to scratch or a shoe to tie, and who were fat with a fatness which refers not to the heroic fatness of Rubens but to the earthy, diet-based fatness of Rembrandt. Which would you prefer? And it’s worth pointing out again that it was often women who were the first purchasers of his scenes of intimate female grooming – though Princesse Mathilde was not among them.
Sometimes, it feels like a bald question: what do you/we actually see? At the Fitzwilliam there is a brothel monotype of Two Women. I looked at it in the company of a (female) graphic artist. It shows the women – plump, friendly, self-possessed – in close proximity. Again, there is a complicity between them, confirmed by the way the shoulder-strap of the front woman’s peignoir seems to continue and link up with the hair of the woman behind. The predominantly black tones are cut by dashes of red on the women’s lips, and a larger red mass in the bottom left-hand corner which may be a bag or part of a chair. It is a jolly picture, almost entirely filled by the two figures; behind them is a sketchy background of a mirror with a circular lamp reflected in it. It has the mood of a subversive Maupassant story in which prostitutes appear more honest, cheerful and truth-seeing than either their hypocritical clients or the primly disapproving bourgeoisie. This is what we saw. Then we read the wall-label, which comes straight from the catalogue: ‘Degas … brings us disturbingly face-to-face with two grotesquely painted ladies of the night, their powdered faces and vampiric “blood-red” lips glowing Pierrot-like out of the dingy maison close.’ Grotesque? Vampiric? Disturbing? Dingy, even?
‘So, what did you make of the three centenary exhibitions in Paris, London and Cambridge?’ (‘Humph, he, ha.’) Each has an original focus or catchment area; each contains major masterpieces. The National Gallery has borrowed the great Degas collection from the Burrell in Glasgow, which is temporarily closed, and put them together with its own Degas holdings (only one major picture is missing from the Burrell loan, the portrait of Edmond Duranty walled in by his books). The d’Orsay pivots on the relationship between Degas the part-time writer and Valéry the part-time artist, and also their (posthumous) collaboration when Vollard published the fantastically expensive livre d’artiste known as Degas Danse Dessin. Valéry was a competent sketcher who in 1910 did a wax bust of Degas; though in a way the most striking image in the Valéry part of the show is a photograph of the writer’s hands. With the right one he is scratching away with his dip-pen; the left, lying closer to us, features a chunky signet ring on the little finger and a hard-worked cigarette between first and second fingers. Degas wrote twenty sonnets which Valéry pronounced ‘remarkable’; though we should also remember Degas complaining to Mallarmé that he had almost too many ideas for his poems, and Mallarmé replying: ‘But Degas, you don’t make a poem out of ideas, you make it out of words.’
The Fitzwilliam has taken an approach which, if you were feeling grumpy or purist, you might judge scattershot; but if feeling normally generous, you will find instructively centrifugal. You might expect perhaps to see a cast of Ingres’s hand in a Degas show, but not a fine and really unusual Alma-Tadema portrait, an Egyptian terracotta statue, a Thomas Jones or a Lorenzo di Credi metalpoint; or that the largest picture on view would be a frothy, larky double portrait by Vanessa Bell of Mr and Mrs Maynard Keynes. The show is densely hung, with ten sections crammed into three rooms; but this rather serves as a confirmation of the hurlyburlyness of art’s history, and of how the continuing clamour of the past acts as a help, not a hindrance, to the making of the new. Francis Bacon is quoted on one of the final walls, saying: ‘To create something … is a sort of echo from one artist to another.’ So there might be – well, there is – a graphite self-portrait by Degas next to the Lorenzo di Credi, then a Legros silverpoint portrait, then a Degas copy of a Donatello, then a Degas chalk copy of a Madonna and child by Francesco Francia, then the Francia oil itself, once owned by a friend of Degas’s father but now in the National Gallery. A section on Rome surrounds Degas’s landscapes with those by roughly contemporary fellow visitors, some of whose work is superior. The Petite Danseuse – which many found oppressively, even disgustingly hyperreal when first shown – is cleverly placed against an if possible even more hyperreal Mater Dolorosa by the 17th-century Pedro de Mena. This is inventive, daring and thought-provoking. And that echo Bacon refers to continues forwards in time as well: Matisse owned Combing the Hair, Picasso nine of the brothel monotypes, Lucien Freud a cast of The Masseuse. As we approach the end of the exhibition, we are suddenly confronted by the flagrant explosion of colour that is one of Howard Hodgkin’s greatest paintings, After Degas. Next to which, perhaps a little unfairly, is hung a feeble Kitaj portrait of the aged, bedridden Degas, based all too closely on a book illustration. Offering homage to a great predecessor can prove an exacting and exposing business. But it is right that Kitaj should be there, along with Sickert, Auerbach, Moore, Freud and even Hockney. The show’s final item is a rather winsome bronze by Ryan Gander of a figure resembling the Petite Danseuse but slumped against a white plinth and enjoying a cigarette. It is a virtue of this ingenious show that it is not afraid to show lesser work beside greater if it expands and continues the argument.
In all three exhibitions there is only one picture (at the Fitzwilliam) that shows anyone laughing or smiling, and it is not by Degas. Rather, it is of Degas, by Boldini: a charcoal drawing of Edgar Degas at a Café Table (1883), with the puckish, crinkly-eyed, smiling Frenchman in full conversational flow, and the narrow profile of a laughing woman closely opposite him. It is a good reminder that Degas was a wit and a charmer before he became a ‘cranky … old buzzard’, not least because his art has wit and charm as well as high seriousness and retinal intensity. In Le Champ de courses (1876), for example, there is a horse exhaling long plumes of white breath into the cold morning air; then you pause, and realise that actually it is overlapping smoke from a steam train in the far distance. (You are partly fooled because you don’t expect a steam train in a Degas. But there it is – just as in Course de gentlemen of 1862, way behind the riders and their mounts, stands a distant row of Seuratian smokestacks.)
A century after his death, we are just about coming to terms with Degas’s achievement, with his position as the modern artist. His work was entirely about contemporary life – even more so than Manet’s. In his entire career he only ever showed one painting with a historical or biblical theme, the early Scene of War in the Middle Ages. Edmond de Goncourt recognised in 1874 that ‘among all the artists I have met so far, he is the one who has best been able, in representing modern life, to catch the spirit of that life.’ Degas placed figures in space where they had never been placed before: pushed to the edge of the canvas (Six Friends at Dieppe), or with heads crammed into the top corner (Dance Examination) – both these pictures are at the Fitzwilliam. He boldly filled – or emptied – whole quarters and more of the canvas, giving them over to a flat colour or repeated hatching; he tipped the perspective to emphasise the floor; he was a lord of infinite space and a king of cropping. He managed to be a committed follower of both Ingres and Delacroix, thereby temporarily resolving the century’s long battle between line and colour; as he put it himself, ‘I am a colourist with line.’ And where his contemporaries saw ugliness (and some still do) we may now recognise utter truthfulness and a kind of harsh tenderness born of that apostolic eye. That we are still taking the measure of him was confirmed by the thrilling MoMA show of his monotypes in 2016, which included landscapes from the early 1890s of a free-handed boldness verging on abstraction. He was a great observer of work, and of what it did to the human body, both in the moment and over time. And while there were objections to his nudes and his ballet dancers, no one, so far as I know, has ever objected to his laundresses: perhaps there are fewer idées reçues about them. Goncourt testified to Degas’s intense research – ‘speaking their language and explaining the technicalities of the different movements in pressing and ironing’. And here they sweatily are, yawning, stretching, leaning down hard on the iron, shouting out orders, complicit in their twos and threes – and, of course, ignoring our presence.
Degas was also the ultimate exemplar of Valéry’s dictum that a poem – or a work of art – is never finished, only abandoned. He was constantly reworking the same image, from one layer of tracing paper to the next, adjusting, readjusting, improving, abandoning, beginning again. Mallarmé, impatient for Degas’s contribution to a book when other artists had already delivered theirs, called him ‘that sublime but unpunctual painter’. Yet ‘punctuality’ was hardly a concern, especially not next to perfection. Degas was also notorious for wanting to continue improving work that was supposedly ‘finished’: indeed, already framed and hung. He ached to delete the watering can that stands cockily at the left edge of Danseuses à la barre – perhaps because he thought he had found a better solution in La Classe de danse, where the same watering can (which bears his signature) is discreetly buried in the bottom left-hand corner, its rose half cropped off by the picture’s edge. He once took away a pastel belonging to Ernest Rouart’s father for ‘retouching’, and promptly – or unpromptly – reworked it to destruction. Degas collectors were said to padlock their pictures to the wall in case the artist came calling: this was a canard, but one containing a higher truth. He was always carrying on finishing, and he never finished.