If I were the government, I would have a squad of gendarmes to keep an eye on these people painting landscapes from nature. Oh! I do not wish anyone dead; I would, however, agree to spraying them with a little bird shot, for starters!
—Edgar Degas, on plein air painters
Degas's famous pronouncement on the questionable worth of outdoor painting has been repeatedly cited by art historians as confirmation of the artist's disdain for the landscape genre. And while it's certainly true that Degas preferred the human figure and interior scenes as subject matter, he did not categorically condemn landscape painting as an inferior art form. Indeed, during three distinct periods of his career, Degas explored this genre in some depth, executing more than 100 pure landscape compositions, including an extraordinary series of some 40 pastel drawings completed during the summer and fall of 1869.
These drawings record Degas's impressions of the sea, the sky, and the shore near the Normandy coast resorts of Etretat and Villers-sur-Mer, where he took refuge from the travails of Paris beginning in July 1869. Similar in size, technique, and subject matter, the pastels constitute a visual record of the artist's journey to the Channel coast.
Scholars disagree on the precise circumstances surrounding the production of these landscapes. Some assert Degas composed them directly from nature and, as evidence, have identified several discernible sites. Others believe he created the works from memory in the confines of his studio, relying upon detailed notes on color, climatic conditions, and the general appearance of the countryside. In either case, the pastels represent an unprecedented achievement in the artist's oeuvre. Not only do they coincide with Degas's first use of pastel, a medium that eventually would be closely associated with him, but they also represent his first significant exploration of the landscape motif.
Thanks to the foresight and generosity of Ruth and Bruce Dayton, one of these remarkable landscapes, Beside the Sea, is now part of the Institute's permanent collection. The modestly-sized drawing (9 3/8 in. x 12 3/8 in.) is striking in its simplicity. Its composition is dominated by broad horizontal bands of color, which define sky, sea, and land. Dark, menacing clouds hover over the scene, appearing to merge with the sea. In the foreground, sand and tide pools draw the viewer's eye toward the horizon, punctuated only by minute figures to establish scale and indicate recession. The overall effect is highly evocative. In these few passages of color, Degas has effectively and sensitively suggested the elemental forms and dynamic conditions of the seashore, creating an expressive, highly personal vision of nature.
Dennis Michael Jon is curatorial assistant in the department of prints and drawings.
Besides the Sea is on view during the month of January 1998 in Gallery 308, East Wing, Third Floor.
For further reading on this and other landscapes by Edgar Degas, see Richard Kendall's comprehensive study, "Degas Landscapes," Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 1993, available in the Museum Shop.
Edgar Degas, French, 1834-1917
Beside the Sea, 1869
Pastel on tan wove paper
Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton