The sculpture of Edgar Degas, one of the most versatile and significant of French 19th-century artists, possesses qualities of simplicity and force not often seen in his more widely known work as a painter. The addition of three of Degas' bronzes to the Institute's collection of modern sculpture, one a gift of Justin K. Thannhauser, the second a gift of the family and friends of Florence Shevlin Tenney, and the third purchased through the D. Draper Dayton Fund, provides the opportunity for a more thorough study of his aspect of his art.Chronologically, the three works date from about 1865 to the last years of his artistic production, around 1911. The earliest of the three is the low relief panel, Girls Picking Apples,
in all probability Degas' first work in sculpture. Of a somewhat later date, but before 1880, is the second of the Institute's bronzes, the very spirited and well articulated study of a Horse Galloping on Right Foot,
while the third work, Dancer Putting on Her Stocking,
is closely related to the sculpture of Degas' last years and should be dated before 1910. Each of the works was cast in bronze from the wax or clay models in the artist's studio after his death in 1917, so more precise dating is not possible.In their treatment, the three bronzes are individually different but as a group reveal a basic characteristic of Degas' art. Motion, or more specifically, a precise movement within a course of action, was of prime concern to the artist. Using his eye not unlike a high-speed camera, Degas captured the interplay of limbs, muscles, tendons involved in a specific moment which visually typified the action and gave it esthetic form. Although his contemporary, Auguste Renoir, said of Girls Picking Apples
that “it was as beautiful as an antique,” neither this first work nor the bronzes that followed were limited by the antique conception of quite repose.On the contrary, Degas searched for the most dynamic interaction between figures, or between the component elements of a single figure, in order to disclose the balance and tension of the form in motion. The Horse Galloping on Right Foot
is seen at the moment when the interplay of stretching and flexing legs creates a sense of formal rhythm and the elongated neck and body, extended to their greatest length, accentuate the slender grace of the running animal. Similarly, in Dancer Putting on Her Stocking,
the contrast of the female form bending in upon itself wile stretching one leg and balancing on the other, suggests the complex poise of the human figure in action. In each case, the tension and coordination of the parts give a graceful unity to the whole and imply a continuity of movement beyond the moment depicted. Thus, while they are seemingly only quick “impressions” of momentary actions, the strength of the modeling, the sharp perception of form, and the careful organization of elements combine to create works of permanence and deep meaning that are among the most forceful of the artist's career.Referenced Works of Art
- Girls Picking Apples. Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917), 1865-70. Bronze 17 1/2” x 18 3/4”. Gift of Justin K. Thannhauser.
- Horse Galloping on Right Foot. Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917), 1870-81. Bronze 12” x 18 3/8”. D. Draper Dayton Fund.