Edgar Degas, The Late Work

Basel, Fondation Beyeler, from 30 September 2012 to 27 January 2013.

1. Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
The Ballet Class, 1880–1900
Oil on Canvas - 62 x 50.5 cm
Private Collection
Photo : SIK-ISEA, Zurich, J.-P. Kuhn

"If Degas had died at fifty, he would have left a reputation of being an excellent painter, nothing more ; it was after the age of fifty that his work opened up and he became Degas [1]". The Fondation Beyeler develops Renoir’s reflection by exhibiting 150 late works by Edgar Degas, those produced in the years after 1886, following the last Impressionist exhibition. Besides the oils on canvas and the drawings, this show also brings together about thirty bronze statuettes - women and horses - which were cast after the artist’s death from wax sculptures found in his studio, but above all, sixty-five pastels, a very honorable ensemble given the fragile character of the technique making museums loath to lend them out (we can understand why).
The rooms receive only natural light, reduced to 50 lux for evident conservation reasons. The idea was theoretically attractive but not that "bright" in practical terms, so that small spotlights scattered here and there might have saved visitors from seriously having to squint at times. The catalogue published for the occasion, available in German and English, offers full-page reproductions of the works but without entries and the few essays include an interview with the contemporary artist Jeff Wall which does not seem indispensable.

A thematic itinerary was chosen since Degas did not often date or sign his last works, but particularly because he tended to favor certain subjects, from which he created incessant variations : the dancers of course, but also women at their "toilette" as well as horses, while the photographic portraits and the landscapes correspond more to a specific moment in his career. By juxtaposing works with the same motifs, even at times the same compositions, the exhibition underscores the importance of the artist’s work on series and also the variety of techniques he used, notably pastels which allowed him "paint while drawing and to draw while painting [2].

2. Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Dancers with Yellow Skirts, 1903
Pastel - 82 x 92 cm
Private Collection
Photo : Courtesy M.S.F.A.

3. Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Woman Bathing, 1893−1898
Oil on Canvas - 71.1 x 88.9 cm
Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario
Photo : Art Gallery of Ontario

As always, Degas reveals the world behind the scenes and observes the dancers (ill. 1) through a keyhole while at the barre or resting, divested of the forced grace and lightness demanded by the public. But more than the ballerinas themselves, the painter was fascinated with their movements. For example, he lines up a string of young girls dressed in tutus of the same bright color, but their different attitudes in fact seem to be the various stages in the decomposition of a sole and unique impulsion of the body (ill. 2). He also attempts to create effects with colored materials, juxtaposing or overimposing pastels, shading then rubbing the surfaces, producing "orgies of colors [3] which reinforce each other when the paintings are side by side. The viewer is thus contemplating a work in progress.

4. Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Breakfast after the Bath, c. 1895−1898
Pastel - 82.5 x 79 cm
Basel, Fondation Beyeler
Photo : Robert Bayer, Bâle

The section devoted to portraits - essentially friends of the painter - emphasizes Degas’ passing interest in photography in the mid-1890’s. Next to Henri Rouart and his Son Alexis painted on canvas, strategically placed photographs show Renoir and Mallarmé or Ludovic Halévy, superb and bearded. The contrast is surprising when moving from the static pose of photographed portraits to the contorsions of the female body - dancers or women at their "toilette" - stripped of a face or identity.
The theme of the woman at her "toilette" (ill. 3), of which we recently saw some very beautiful examples at the Musée d’Orsay (see article, in French), marks a break with the ideal of the nude. We particularly admired one of the versions of Woman in a Tub which, here again, transforms the spectator into a voyeur. "Until now, the nude had always been represented in poses which assume there is a public, but my women are simple persons. I show them without any vanity, much like animals cleaning themselves (...) It is as if you were looking through a keyhole [4]". The comparison of different variations of the same theme like Breakfast after the Bath, underscore the artist’s search, choosing unusual angles and daring compositions. Moving from one painting to the next, the servant who brings in a cup of chocolate is cut off by the frame (ill. 4). The artist distorts perspective, placing the space off-balance and making it uncertain ; he underscores the background effects so that we are no longer sure of the boundaries between the foreground and the rear of the painting. He no longer attempts to finish his work.

5. Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
River Banks, c. 1890
Pastel on colored monotype on oil
29.9 x 40.1 cm
Private Collection

Degas’ landscapes were not often displayed to the public. In fact, he was particularly critical of those produced by the Impressionists : "If I were the government, I would have a brigade of gendarmes to supervise persons who do landscapes from life. Oh ! I don’t wish the death of anyone, but I would willingly accept small bullets for starters !". And yet, in 1892 he exhibited at Durand-Ruel’s a series of views which surprised his contemporaries not only for their subject but also their small format and their technique as the artist started working with monotypes, in color for those produced between 1890 and 1892, often with pastel highlights (ill. 5). Somewhere between a sleeping vision and an impression of an unfinished work, the result is almost abstract, but without however encouraging "états d’âme" [moodiness] as suggested by Ludovic Halévy to whom Degas answered annoyingly that his only intention was to interpret "états d’yeux" [moods for the eye].

6. Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Wounded Jockey, c. 1896−1898
Oil on Canvas - 180.6 x 150.9 cm
Basel, Kunstmuseum
Photo : Kunstmuseum Basel
Martin P. Bühler

The exhibition ends with Wounded Jockey(ill. 6), a large format with a simplified composition, which once again demonstrates that the artist was interested in the manner he produced the work rather than in finishing it ; he often asserted that no art was less spontaneous than his own. The canvas repeats a theme from 1866, stripping it bare of many elements, and depicts a rider who does not look like he will ever get back up ; a kind of memento mori which makes for a strict finish to the visit.
Degas’ late work did not do well on the art market and it was not until the 1988-1989 retrospective in Paris, Ottawa and New York that it was finally appreciated. It is very tempting to show that a painter was born a genius and died a visionary, prefiguring successive generations. More simply put, the exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler clearly proves that after the Impressionist adventure, "Edgar Degas was then ready to take important risks, either in the composition of his paintings and/or the choice and combination of materials and techniques", thus tending "to make his previous work more radical" [5]. Renoir had understood this very well, stating that Degas’ work ended by "opening up" ; however, we find it interesting that this reflection comes from a painter who, unlike his friend, would have been better off stopping earlier, or at least this was the feeling expressed at the exhibiton in 2010 at the Grand Palais.

Curator : Martin Schwander

Collective work, Degas. The Late Work, 2012, Fondation Beyeler, 267 p., 56€. ISBN : 9783906053035

Visitor information : Baselstrasse 101, 4125 Riehen/Basel. Tel : 0041 (0)61 645 97 00. Open every day from 10 am to 6 pm, on Wednesday until 8 pm. Admission : 25CHF (reduced : 6 to 12 CHF).

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, mercredi 31 octobre 2012


[1] Renoir, according to Ambroise Vollard, Souvenirs d’un marchand de tableaux, Paris, 1937.

[2] Exhibition catalogue, Martin Schwander, "Edgar Degas and his late work", pp. 11-21.

[3] Degas according to Julie Manet, Journal (1893-1899), Paris 1979.

[4] Edgar Degas, "Je veux regarder par le trou de la serrure." textes, lettres et propos choisis, Paris 2012.

[5] Exhibition catalogue, Martin Schwander, "Edgar Degas and his late work", p. 17

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