With the acquisition of Degas' celebrated portrait of Mlle Hortense Valpinçon,
here presented to members for the first time, the Institute has added one of the most illustrious names in the history of art to the list of those represented in its collections. Misjudged, underestimated, and almost unknown until some years after his death, Degas has now emerged not only as one of the greatest draughtsmen of all time, but as an inventor of subject and composition, an impassioned lover of movement and reality, and a psychological portraitist unequalled in the modern school of painting. It was of his gifts in the latter field that the world remained longest unaware. Degas' portraits represent the most intimate and jealously guarded aspect of his art. They stemmed from this affection for his intimates—an affection never lightly given—and were done solely for his own pleasure and for that of his friends and family. Thus it was not until the sale of his collection after his death in 1917 that the world knew of them, and not until the great exhibition at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris in 1924 that one could begin to estimate Degas' prodigious achievement in this field of painting. Thereafter it became evident that he had for many years been displaying in his practice of portraiture the same piercing analysis, the same implacable search for truth, the same mastery of draughtsmanship and composition that distinguished his work in other fields. To all those who have thought of Degas only as a painter of ballet dancers, race course scenes, and female nudes, the portraits will be a revelation and a delight.That of Mlle Hortense Valpinçon
is a superb example. It is generally agreed that it was painted during the Commune, when Degas spent several weeks with his friend Paul Valpinçon, Hortense's father, at the Valpinçon country house at Ménil-Hubert (Orne). This would put it in the year 1871, when Degas had developed his individual style of portraiture; a style that was still close to Ingres but that showed greater interest in modelling a manner of composition quite different from that it be found in the earliest portraits; manner, moreover, of which Ingres would certainly not have approved.Degas painted the young Hortense without ceremony. She is shown leaning easily on one end of a table draped with a black woolen coverlet embroidered in bright colors. At the opposite end of the table some hanks of wool and a piece of tapestry worked in somber hues spill from a basket. The child is wearing a black frock that is almost covered by a white, sleeved apron and, around the shoulders, a cashmere shawl that is knotted at the hips in back. Under a pert little hat of yellow straw, bound and banded with black velvet ribbon, her face is adorable—and calculating. Shall she or shall she not risk Degas' displeasure by eating the quarter of an apple which she holds in her right hand? We know, through a recollection of Madame Jacques Fourchy, Hortense, née Valpinçon, that Degas had given her four quarters of an apple to serve as a reward for good behavior during the sitting. She had already disposed of the other three, but this time, apparently, she was good, for here we have her, captured forever, a warm-spirited and only normally mischievous child in whom Degas has seen a strongly individual personality and through whom she has yet suggested, in some mysterious fashion, the essence of all little French girls in a happy home.Degas' gift for conveying so powerfully the character of an individual was partly the result of his demand that his sitters assume natural and familiar attitudes in habitual surroundings. The success to be derived from this insistence on the normal is strikingly evident in the portrait of Mlle Hortense Valpinçon.
Degas has suggested perfectly, in the informal pose and the alert and intelligent face of a child; in the pale, flowered wallpaper; in the fabrics on the table and the light sifting into the room, the fundamental character and quality of his subject and her milieu. So might he have found her on entering from another room. He has analyzed her personality so acutely, and done it with such scrupulous objectivity, that he has left no barrier between her and the spectator. One knows her, and, like Degas, finds her enchanting.It is notable that the success of the portrait as a psychological study in no way depends upon voluptuous color or fruity pigment. The modelling of the face, the figure standing freely in space, and the brushwork—still smooth but richer than in earlier work—are reinforced by Degas' daring manner of composing. Influenced possibly by his interest in Japanese prints and possibly by his study of certain old masters, he formed the habit of placing the principal figures in his compositions off center, thus creating a precarious equilibrium that would have been disastrous in hands less sure or directed by a mind less lucid. In the portrait of Mlle Hortense Valpinçon
the child stands at the far right of the canvas with her figure cut off short at mid-calf. The table with its black coverlet occupies a disproportionate amount of space, but the disposition of light and dark areas—the whites are dazzling against the black—and the play of light on fabric and wall, bind the composition into a brilliant whole. The vivacious line of black defining the back of the figure and the fringed ends of the shawl has been the subject of some speculation. It is possible that Degas was not satisfied with the limitation of contour and planned to change it. He frequently did this, for he was that uneasiest of all men, a perfectionist. According to Madame Fourchy, he insisted that he had not finished the portrait, but Paul Valpinçon, knowing his habit of reworking his pictures, declared that it was perfect as it was and took it from him. It remained in the Valpinçon collection, and later in that of Madame Fourchy until the late 1920s. It was first shown at the Galerie Georges Petit and since that time has appeared in numerous important exhibitions of Degas' work in both Europe and the United States.Degas' manner of composing and of mise en toile—the expression cannot be translated for it implies the how much as well as the how of an arrangement—is to be found throughout his work. It was evident in his portraits as early as 1865, when he painted the Woman with the Chrysanthemums
now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and was brilliantly exploited in the portrait of The Duchess of Montejasi-Cicerale and her Daughters
done ten years after that of Mlle Hortense Valpinçon.
It contributes powerfully to the realism of his paintings of ballet dancers and race scenes, and to the unprecedented painting of the Place de la Concorde,
where the Vicomte Lepic and his two small daughters are shown cropped off short at the knees in the lower right corner of the canvas. The group seems to be walking right out of the picture, and the illusion is made more complete by the view of the Place, which stretches into the background as if seen almost from the ground level. It is an extraordinary landscape which gives no hint of sky; as extraordinary in its way as The Carriage at the Races,
now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where the canvas is almost all sky. This manner of mise en toile, peculiar to Degas, seems to have been the result of his desire to achieve the greatest possible degree of realism in his pictures. It is particularly effective in his portraits, which are thus given an air of casualness and truth that accords astonishingly well with the elegance of some of his subjects.In the time that has elapsed since they were first recognized as masterpieces of their kind, the portraits have become doubly precious, for with Degas' letters—amusing, witty, solicitous, often melancholy and sometimes unexpectedly tender—they give a more accurate clue to a man who was too often described as arrogant and sarcastic. The portraits make Degas' friends known to the observer as they were known to him. One sees in them the cultivated and warm-hearted people to whom he gave his deepest devotion. In the letters one becomes acquainted, little by little, with Degas himself—with his pride, his shyness, his love of music and art, his great need of his friends. One learns that he was a solitary person, jealous of his privacy, but that no effort was too great if it would benefit his friends. One lives with him through the long summer he spent with the Valpinçon family in 1884, when he occupied himself with modelling a bust of Hortense, and suffers with him during the dark days when his blindness was becoming an increasing burden and he felt himself "closing like a door, and not only on his friends."Degas' withdrawal from a world into which he had never fitted easily was not unnatural in a proud and sensitive man who, because of a growing divergence in beliefs, separated himself from the group of independent painters with which he became associated in the 60s. He never courted fame, and after 1886 exhibited his work to the public only once. In the decade from 1860 to 1870 he was admitted fairly regularly to the Salon, but his growing tendency to introduce contemporary elements into works executed in the classical linear style, which he had inherited from Ingres, soon won him the disfavor of Salon officials. It was then that he became closely identified with the group which included Manet, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, and Berthe Morisot, and which was later joined by the American artist Mary Cassatt, who was strongly influenced by Degas. Banded together in common revolt against official art, they declared the necessity of being true to life, each in his own fashion. Even with this group, however, Degas was something of an outsider. He was absorbed in draughtsmanship, to which he had devoted himself following Ingres' advice to draw constantly and which he believed to be superior to color as a means of expression. He tried to persuade his colleagues to explore its possibilities, but they, in turn, were absorbed with color and with landscape and the sensations they experienced in its presence. Neither succeeded in convincing the other and a cleavage, first marked by disagreements concerning execution, became more complete as Degas persisted in finding his inspiration in unorthodox subjects; subjects which had not before engaged the attention of the artist. His interest in contemporary life in all its aspects led him to the Opera, where he observed ballet dancers at practice and on the stage; to the race course, to laundresses, milliners, and finally to the magnificent series of female nudes which reveal Degas' realism at its most abstract.His unusual choice of subject was viewed as vulgar and commonplace by all but a small, enlightened group. It was a curious criticism in view of the current cult of naturalism. Parallels were drawn between Degas' art and that of the Goncourt brothers, but while inspired by some of the same types, Degas' work was more fastidious and infinitely more distinguished than that of the Goncourts. Actually he was close to Baudeliare, who used words as Degas used paint, and closer still to Flaubert. Both were realists, with an observation so acute and a detachment so monumental that they laid bare the very heart of truth. Theirs is a realism so pure as to be at once merciless and compassionate. No short story in the history of literature is a more perfect example of this type of realism than Le Coeur Simple,
in which Flaubert strips Félicité to the very soul. One ends by feeling that knowledge so intimate of another would be indecent were it not conveyed with such scientific dispassion. The performance is clinical in its completeness. Such realism has in it none of the tawdry character that marks such naturalistic art, both literary and visual. Degas achieved the same profound detachment in some of his portraits and above all in his series of female nudes, exhibited at the eighth and last group show in 1886. In the hands of a painter of less integrity and natural taste these nudes might have verged on the obscene. But Degas was always the master of his intention and never displayed his mastery to greater advantage than in this series. He wanted to show the nude not in the decorative pose usually assumed for artists, but in those intimate moments when she is making her toilette and is natural as an animal because she feels herself unobserved. Edmond de Goncourt recognized this penetrating vision in Degas, seeing in him the man "who has best captured, in reproducing modern life, the soul of that life."Among the most striking examples of Degas' realism are those works of contemporary life in which he displayed his passion for movement. It fascinated him, especially when it was the trained, habitual movement to be found in every field of activity, from the ballet dancer practicing her rigorous routine to the laundress ironing a sheet. To its rendering he brought the same flawless perfection that marked whatever performance he observed. No one has expressed more vividly the supple rhythm of riders and their mounts, the marvelous fluidity of a dancer bending to tie her show or bowing to her audience. Because Degas was preoccupied with the pictorial possibilities of such subjects and because, by accident or design, he chose those subjects from fields which are as much a part of the contemporary scene as they were when Degas painted them, these pictures, which might have been merely topical, possess a unique and timeless quality.It is interesting to note that Degas' realism should have resulted from a method so calculated. He once declared that no art was less spontaneous than his. He believed in observing first and painting afterward. Except for his portraits, he painted from memory, choosing the outstanding elements of a scene and modifying details as he pleased to suit his composition. Thus he was free from the demands made upon his contemporaries by light and nature. It was perhaps this very freedom which made it so difficult for him to satisfy himself. His own standard was so high that he hardly ever reached it, and as the years passed and he became ever more solitary, his paintings—chiefly pastels after the great series of portraits—were oftener and oftener laid aside for future attention, as if he had all eternity in which to complete them. Finally his blindness, no more than a slight inconvenience when he painted Mlle Hortense Valpinçon,
became so pronounced that he turned almost exclusively to modelling, trying to create by touch alone the rhythm and movement which had been among his greatest passions.In 1912 he was forced to give up his work entirely. He spent his days walking around Paris, his loneliness lightened by occasional visits from friends. Among them was Madame Fourchy, his dear Hortense, to whom he remained devoted to the end of his life. His death in 1917 passed almost unnoticed among the thousands that were taking place in Europe in that momentous year and only his friends realized how great a loss he was to the world. For them the end came too soon and left too many questions unanswered. It would always have come too soon, for Degas was one of those rare, complex, and many-sided persons whom one feels one will never wholly know.Referenced Work of Art
- Mlle Hortense Valpinçon. Detail of a portrait by Edgar Degas, French, 1834-1917. Acquired through the John R. Van Derlip Fund