As you wander through each room, there are glimpses of the spaces beyond – a layout reflective of the Japanese compositions that Degas employed in his work. The first few spaces trace the artist’s personal history with portraits including that of his younger brother titled René De Gas, 1855, who appears seemingly fed up holding the pose. This painting is the first of many psychological portraits in which he was able to accurately capture the true emotion of his subject. In many cases, his subjects were friends and family members as he did not have to pay them to sit for him, although money was the least of Degas’s concerns as he was born to wealthy parents. After the death of both his mother and grandmother, Degas grew close to his father, and the two would often enjoy Sunday strolls to the Louvre, but despite his father’s appreciation of fine art, Degas was expected to study law; however, he failed to complete his studies. The act of commencing a task but not completing it would become a life-long habit of his. It was in these developmental stages that Degas met Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres who advised him to ‘Draw lines, young man, and still more lines, both from life and from memory.’
Portraits of his sister Thérèse De Gas, 1863, his grandfather Hilaire Degas, 1857, and The Bellelli Family, 1858–1867, illustrate the close relationship he had with his relatives as well as hinting at motifs that would later come to distinguish him as an artist. For example, his ability to compel one’s eyes to wander off the canvas as prompted in The Bellelli Family and the mirror which reflects another room. The same technique is later observed in the piece The rehearsal, 1874, which depicts a group of dancers and a stairwell.
Still, in the initial exhibition space, we see portraits of impoverished Italian women including Roman beggar woman, 1857, as well as historical paintings and work which inspired what Degas called ‘Italian primitives.’ The self-proclaimed realist would continue to explore what art critics deemed as inappropriate subject matter throughout his career, including The laundress ironing, 1882-86.
Degas was quick to forfeit historical paintings, instead opting for Parisian nightlife and leisure including ballet and racehorses, although Degas refused paint en plein air. Some of his most infamous ballet paintings, including Finishing the arabesque, 1877, Dancers on the stage, 1899, Rehearsal hall at the Opéra, rue Le Peletier, 1872, and Dancer with bouquets, 1895-1900, evoke a sense of movement, focusing on a dancer’s gestures rather than the particulars of her beauty. Quotes, such as ‘a drawing is not the form, it’s a way of seeing the form,’ are stenciled onto the walls to remind us of Degas’s intentions.
As we move through the exhibition, we enter a gallery of glass cases containing wax sculptures which were cast in bronze to preserve their structural integrity. The most striking of these sculptures is The little fourteen-year-old dancer, 1879-81, cast 1922-37, which is finished with a cotton skirt and satin ribbon. The collection also features photography by Degas, including a selfie with his housekeeper Zoé Closier.
Ironically, Degas: A New Vision finished with a display of paintings completed when the artist’s vision was fading – the result of which is a vivid colour palette often selected by the ballerinas he was depicting. In a strange coincidence, NGV’s 2013 exhibition Monet’s Garden also concluded with the waning eyesight of a master painter.
We recommend tagging along on one of NGV’s complimentary guided tours as the insightful guides have a plethora of information such as Degas’s frame preferences and stories from the painter’s friends, which you would not hear otherwise.
June 24-September 18, 2016