What is the usual take on Edgar Degas work? Well, we know that he loved the ballet and horses, witness his portrayal of young dancers and the well-rounded haunches of horses. His bronze young dancer is probably the most well known and loved portrayal of the ballet. His scenes of pampered geldings continually delight the eye, for Degas is a painter of dancers and jockeys. But lo, what have we here? A recent exhibition has shown a hundred young naked women in paintings, drawings, and prints. There are also women in tortuous poses cast in bronze. The exhibition does not sanitize Degas, who by all accounts was a prickly and peculiar fellow and perhaps celibate. It shows the raunchiest of his “brothel monotypes” as well as genteel women at their toilette and both kinds of work can be traced back to his early history paintings which show raped and dead naked women often with red hair. For Degas the academic nude, the prostitute, the dancer and the bather were essentially the same woman, and the naked body was the constant. One might say of most of them that they were down right dirty nudes, and yet we must admit that he approached each of these nudes in their individual situations and with enormous empathy for line.

Degas was born into the upper middle class of a banking family and took to the art of Ingres who advised him , “Draw lines, young man”. Degas did just that studying the male nude and copying Mantegna, Botticelli, Michelangelo and Raphael. He moved quickly from the stiff choreography of history painting and proceeded to studies of the nude and sex. He used glass plates which loosened his line because it was messy and unpredictable. His black and white prostitute monotypes depicted plump and slovenly working girls with dark hair between their thighs. They are shown having sex with themselves and one another for fun and for show. The work was like a tidal wave of hot and bothered genius. As his women of the night begin to look more like the housewives at their toilette his palette becomes softer and he begins to work in pastels. He fixes his women in contorted poses and unidealized bodies that met with delight from some and disgust from others of his audience. A young woman dressing herself depicts an ample bottom which critics called “dumpy” and “a fat bourgeoisie.” He depicts one bather standing in a tub balancing precariously on her left wrist and big toe while another strains to scratch her broad back or yet another runs a comb through tangled hair. In all of these the model’s faces are not exposed, just their bare bottoms. His late nudes continue to make the back his focus; these are the most sensual with spines and shoulders softened by layers of pastel.

In fact Degas staged a photograph of himself gazing dreamily at the buttocks of a nude sculpture. He seemed to be able to laugh at himself, but in most cases he preferred to exercise a wit so cruel that all of his friends eventually abandoned him. Human nature has always wanted to admire and respect greatness but Degas made it extremely difficult to do so. He was a vicious anti-Semite and his aloofness thinly veiled his grasping commercialism. He was a calculating mean and narrow man. His later years found him with failing eyesight which made him painfully sensitive to light. He continued to rely on the motif of the female back, now arranged diagonally at an angle from the side. This was in keeping with other work by him in which he observed and mastered the space in Japanese woodblock prints. Now his nudes and his dancers were no longer centered on the canvas or paper, often losing a leg or an arm truncated by the edge of the surface. The late work is far more tactile almost as if he is remembering visual forms which were lodged in his wrist and inner eye. There is an actual physicality to his late charcoals and pastels; the blazing colors and violent blacks literally explode on the paper. Simultaneously he returns to sculptures of dancers and horses ride a jet steam of perfect realization. Although he exhibited with the Impressionists throughout his career, he was firmly against being cast as one of them. Matisse and Picasso responded to his nudes, but perhaps the best opinion by a painter comes from Lucian Freud who said, “You might say that Degas’ people were more naked than nude—that he was making portraits of naked people.” But to all those for whom Degas represents sweetness and light– have at it and be delighted with his work!

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