Along with Manet, Degas is my favorite artist among the impressionist group. Like Manet, he rejected the label “impressionist” in his early years, though his later work is solidly in the impressionist sphere in color and execution. Also like Manet, he was well grounded in traditional techniques of form and composition, and maintained these strengths even as he absorbed the influences of the new style. Manet and Degas can be seen as the “old men” of the group, supplying it with ties to what went before.
I will show one early portrait, definitely pre-impressionist, showing his mastery of traditional composition: his partrait of the Bellelli family. In fact, the brilliance of this work is its use of figure arrangement to tell you everything you need to know about the personality of each sitter, and of the family dynamics. The mother stands foursquare in the center, a rock, clearly the anchor of the family. The father, by contrast, is off to the side, indecisive in his body language, and essentially disconnected, not a real member of the family group. When we come to the daughters, we see two diametrically opposed personalities, one self-contained and independent, the other dependent, content in the shadow of her mother. This is an extraordinary psychological study! Finally, they are all tied into the frame with a completely realized composition of lines and shapes.
Degas is perhaps best known for his many studies done of ballet dancers. I am showing two of them here, which illustrate some of Degas’ great inventions. The first is the “slice of life” character of the framing, as if the frame arbitrarily slices a piece out of a larger visual field. A second invention is the apparent unrelatedness of the figures, despite their shared costuming and activity. Each dancer is in her own world, only circumstantially brought into proximity to the others. This is very much of a piece with Manet’s exploration of alienation. I’ll show more examples of these qualities below.
There are two sources that influenced Degas in his radical departure from traditional composition. One is the influx of Japanese prints into Paris, prints which often display radical asymmetry in the organization of figures. The second is the rise of photography. The arbitrary cutting off of a larger visual field is a characteristic of candid photography and must have been a revelation to him.
Here are two further examples of Degas’ inventive use of the slice of life technique. In “The Milliners”, neither of the figures is centered, nor are they centered as a group; one is cut off by the frame. Front and center is a hat, but it is not the hat that either woman is paying attention to. It is the “accidental” center of this slice. “At the Races” makes an even more radical departure from traditional composition, with the right half the frame populated and the left half virtually unoccupied. Just as we are about to declare the composition hopelessly unbalanced, we notice that in the exact center is “the real subject of the photo”: a mother with her baby displayed to the viewer. Thus what is seen to the left and right can be understood as the accidental surroundings of this meaningful center.
I’ll show one final pair of works, where the compositional techniques are combined with the theme of detachment and isolation among figures. The “Cotton Exchange is a relatively early work, not yet influenced by impressionist color. We see a large collection of figures thrown together, none having any psychological contact with another, with the exception of a gentlemen offering a handful of cotton to a companion. This is very much like the message which Manet conveyed in his “Railroad” and “Barmaid” pictures in my last post.
“The absinthe drinkers” shows a powerful influence from the composition of Japanese prints, as well as the isolation of the two figures. What holds this radical composition together is the bold diagonals of the foreground tables. The tables also both join and separate us, the viewers, from the background group. Clearly we are sitting at a foreground table, perhaps enjoying our own glass of absinthe.
Degas excites and challenges my feeling for composition and organization, something I find lacking in the works of most of the impressionist group.