The inspiration for Ballet Class Visitor, Edgar Degas, did just about everything wrong in his personal life. But although difficult and contrary, he created unforgettable art.
By David Stone
Assorted Ideas, Large & Small
Even his one time ally in breaking down traditional barriers in art, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, said, “What a creature he was, that Degas! All his friends had to leave him; I was one of the last to go, but even I couldn’t stay till the end.”
The painter whose penetrating views into middle class life in Paris gives us lasting intimate views was the ultimate outsider.
“The artist must live alone,” he said, “and his private life must remain unknown.”
Creator of sensual nudes and beguiling dancers, Degas never married.
His family name, by the way, was De Gas, not Degas, but he considered it too highfalutin.
Degas’s original intention was to be a history painter, following a conservative path like his hero, Ingres.
Unlike other avant grade artists, the traditional art salons in Paris accepted his paintings from the start.
But at forty, he decided he didn’t like Salon culture anymore and abruptly cast his lot with the avant-garde of Monet. They were “impressionists” because the evanescent nature of their work set them apart from formal artists.
This did not mean Degas liked impressionism, however. He hated the term and wanted to be called “a realist,” instead. He even mocked their commitment to plein air painting.
Contrary as ever, he also took a leading role in organizing the Impressionist Exhibitions, from 1874 to 1886.
Ballet Class Visitor Challenges Degas’s Bad Nature
Meanwhile, Degas fought with the group over who should be included.
His insistence on non-impressionists caused so much rancor, the group eventually broke up. That, however, was not the end of his alienating fellow artists.
But first, he created some of the most memorable art of his time.
It started with his subjects, average people in the shops, bars and streets of Paris. Conservatives thought them uninteresting, and avant-garde impressionists preferred landscapes and pretty characters.
Edgar Degas experimented radically with color, but for me anyway, what makes his art stand out is its original slant on its subjects.
His primary characters often are not at the center in the picture. Important objects partially disappeared off the edge of his canvas. A committed realist, Degas painted the world more in the way we see it. Unposed. Not poetically balanced.
A genius without friends
For the last twenty years of his life, Degas was without friends, finally wandering around, nearly blind.
The Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s accelerated alienation as his anti-Semitism became more pronounced, but that might be too narrow.
For one thing, Degas disliked almost everything. He was said to have fired a model after learning she might be Protestant.
He also hated social reform and technological innovation, like the then daring telephone. Yet, his art was so unforgettably out front.
In respect for the pastels Degas contributed in recording the story of ballet dancers at work, before the public and behind the scenes, cat artist Deborah Julian offered her first contribution using his art.
She uses a gentle image of ballerinas stretching at the bar while a perfectly color-coordinated cat stands by with a ribbon, hoping someone will come play.
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