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Degas exhibit is gem at Denver Art Museum

Painter died a century ago and left immense mark on world

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Why a Degas exhibit now? “It’s a celebration of the centenary of Degas’ death in 1917,” said Dr. Timothy Standring, Gates Family Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Denver Art Museum, as he spoke prior to the opening of a special exhibit he had been working on for five years. He spoke of “Degas’ escape — affirming while obliterating his marks on paper,” as he reworked his pieces at times.

“Degas: A Passion for Perfection” was sold out on its opening day and will continue as a specially ticketed exhibit through May 20. The exhibit was first organized by Jane Munroe, keeper of paintings and prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England and was locally curated by Standring, who added items from other collections to the original selection, offering more than 100 works. As he spoke about the project, he said, “no isn’t in my vocabulary” when it comes to borrowing artworks. (One owner at the Maastricht Art Fair in the Netherlands was reluctant because he wanted to sell a piece instead of loaning. “I’ll find a buyer,” Standring replied — and did!)

The curator speaks of this exhibit as “presenting insight into the artist’s journey,” showing many aspects of Degas’ acute awareness of his surroundings and society — and endless curiosity. Born into a somewhat wealthy family, he had a classical education, which would have afforded many ideas for artworks early on — and he did start painting as a teen.

Degas’ prolific 60-year career touched on many of his diverse interests, from ballet, dancers as individuals and theater to landscapes and cityscapes of Paris street life, to horse racing. Largely self-trained, he transformed from a portraitist and painter of historic subjects and transitioned into an interest in the contemporary scene. An interesting turn-of-the-century film clip shows a street scene that looks very familiar, from Degas’ and other Impressionists’ art. (Although Standring said Degas disliked being called an Impressionist.) In his last years, “he was pretty much blind,” and turned to creating clay and wax models, intended to be cast in bronze. Many were found in poor condition in his studio after his death and repaired and cast by a foundry hired by his family.

His mother was a Cajun from New Orleans and his father came from Naples. (The Italian grandfather escaped from a revolution on horseback, carrying gold, and started banks.) After an attempt at studying law, at his father’s insistence, he embarked on an artist’s training by copying the earlier masters at the Louvre and elsewhere — the common way to study in the 19th century, as well as attending Le Ecole des Beaux Artes. Exhibits followed with his contemporaries.

He learned to emulate the Academic painters and said “One certainly needs courage if one is to approach nature.” He created a new painting technique, recognized as turpentine in the U.S., mixing the pigments with gasoline. It thinned the paint, allowing for precise lines and a flat effect. The painter Corot was an influence in his development of landscapes and he worked on smaller pieces with pastels, some watercolor, some oil. Repetition was an ongoing theme, with numerous versions of a given subject or scene.

Standring said Degas’ studio in Paris was reported to be a pigpen because he never wanted to give anything away — and his eyesight was degenerating. During his productive years, he created many monotypes, where a painting is created on a metal plate and paper is laid on it and pulled off as a print. He made more than one impression from a plate and added in pastels. “It was all about process — making, making, making,” Standring commented.

The curator followed Degas’ steps in Paris, including a visit to his tomb in Montmartre, and said “we really wanted to tell the right story” in this exhibit that represents about 20 public and private collection, including that of the Denver Art Museum, which owns three pastels and two sculptures. He said scholars love to talk about Degas’ dysfunctional family, but he did not elaborate on the subject.

During a Q&A period following the lecture, Kim Field, Littleton writer and Historic Preservation Board member, commented on Degas’ choice of models. “They were not perfect 10s” — nor did the dancers depicted show perfect ballet form. Standring agreed and spun off into the painters’ many influences, including Japanese prints. And flexibility. “Sometimes, he added strips of paper to a drawing,” to get proportions right. He might be compared to more contemporary Rauschenberg and Richter. A close look will reveal those added strips pasted on the edge of a drawing.

He was commercially successful, despite difficult family finances. British and French collectors bought his work, including at an auction following his death. (Fitzwilliam Museum’s collection is an example.) He also accumulated a personal art collection.

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