Just when you think you know a guy, turns out he surprises you. I’m talking here about Eddie Degas, the kid whose mom and grandma were born in New Orleans, who’s often called an Impressionist, who painted a lot of ballet dancers. He’s the guy who palled around with Mary Cassatt.
Born Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas in 1834 to a well-to-do Parisian banking family, he is so famous today as a painter of ballerinas that much of his creativity is buried under clich�.
One of the avowed intentions of the newly opened exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, "Degas and the Dance," is to show what guest curator Richard Kendell calls "the radical nature" of Degas’ art. This massive show, with more than 100 works, is probably the last time so much of Degas’ art will be assembled. There are dozens of private collections, several dozen museums and 47 cities in 11 countries represented in the exhibition, which runs through May 11 under the sponsorship of chemical company Atofina and PNC Bank.
As this is one of those economic-blockbuster shows, it has drawn the attention of commerce, spawning a variety of hotel and restaurant packages, lectures, programs, workshops, T-shirts, etc. The gift shop that the exhibition tour drops one into is the size of a small department store. The financial clout of this show is being compared to the C�zanne effect and the cafeteria is proudly presenting "Degateaux," a chocolate-mousse concoction. In New York City’s Penn Station, a huge banner promoting the show matches the size of the one at Philadelphia International Airport.
One of the striking images in the show is Orchestra Musicians from the City Art Museum in Frankfurt, Germany. Here are Kendell and his co-curator, Jill DeVonyar, on the painting: "Their legs savagely cut by the edge of the stages, their coral and silver dresses suppressed by shadow or ablaze with light, the background figures in Orchestra Musicians were among the very first dancers to be painted by Edgar Degas. It was a startling debut for an obscure 35-year-old, one of a cluster of ballet scenes he began around 1870 that were soon to launch his career as ‘the painter of dancers.’"
Indeed, the same techniques that Degas drew from his study of Japanese prints can be seen more than a generation later in some American works such as Everett Shinn’s The Orchestra Pit, now at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in a show of the American response to early theater and film in the United States.
Degas, like his lifelong friend Cassatt, was independently wealthy and did not need to sell his work. He exhibited with a group of contemporaries known as Impressionists, who had been rejected by the Salon shows. Cassatt, classically trained by the Pennsylvania Academy, shared that training with Degas, who studied at the French Academy. Both excelled at drawing and were more interested in people and interior lights and scenes than the Impressionists.
Cassatt and Degas could almost be said to be a separate artistic movement, not at all a part of the Impressionists. In fact, Cassatt called Monet’s famous water lilies "glorified wallpaper." Cassatt, every bit as sharp-tongued as Degas, also called the paintings by such youngsters as Matisse and Picasso "dreadful." Degas, a well-known chauvinist, anti-Semite and misogynist, was dumbfounded by Cassatt’s talents, saying, "I will not admit that a woman can draw so well."
For her part, Cassatt said of Degas’ Dance Class, it was "more beautiful than any Vermeer I ever saw." The two were friends despite a long estrangement due to Degas’ anti-Semitism during the Dreyfus affair, which involved treason charges against a Jewish military officer. As the artists aged and developed poor eyesight, both turned to pastels, a number of which are shown to good effect at the museum exhibition. Another side of Degas’ work that constitutes a delight is a series of portraits executed in later life.
Neither Cassatt nor Degas were terribly well-known during their lifetimes, although they were appreciated by other artists and, in 1904, Cassatt was awarded the French Legion of Honor.
That the art of Degas is the stronger is well-accepted and this new look at the definitive vision of the dance as portrayed by Degas reinforces that notion. He is a superb draftsman, the master of the impact of light on color, and as the research behind this exhibition aptly demonstrates, he knew the dance and the body in motion as well as anyone.
As part of his artistic vision, Degas said, "It is essential to do the same subject over and over again, 10 times, a hundred times."
Degas and the Dance
Through May 11
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street
Museum admission: $10 general; $7 seniors, students and ages 5-18; pay what you wish on Sundays; Degas exhibit: $20 adults, $17 seniors and students, $10 ages 5-12.