“Is painting done to be looked at?” asked Edgar Degas in a quote that greets visitors to an absorbing new exhibition at the Newcomb Art Gallery. “Is it any business of journalists if I make pictures, boots, or cloth slippers? Painting concerns one’s private life.”
Degas’ statement seems to both resist and invite a biographical reading of his work. “Degas: The Private Impressionist” seeks to do just that — and it’s a credit to the exhibition’s organizers, as well as to the collection from which the works in the show are drawn, that it largely succeeds in constructing an evocative portrait of the artist.
Certainly, New Orleans audiences already “know” Degas quite well — after all, he’s one of our own, or almost. His maternal family was from New Orleans, and he famously spent five months visiting them in their Esplanade home during 1872-73. His ballet dancers, horses and scenes of the Parisian demimonde, frequently encountered in museums and endlessly reproduced in books and posters, are some of the most recognizable images in modern Western art.
Ironically, the Newcomb show manages to round out our acquaintance with Degas thanks to the inclusion of many works that aren’t by Degas at all. Some of them are by Degas’ contemporaries, while the rest were created after the artist’s death in 1917 using Degas’ work as a point of departure. The latter category might include the several prints exhibited here that were posthumously produced from the original plates created by Degas himself during his lifetime.
Together, they paint a vivid portrait of the artistic and social milieu in which Degas lived and worked, as well as the creative legacy that work inspired.
Degas’ own work — including his rare self-portraits, three of which are included here — doesn’t always offer clues about what he was “really” like. Two of the self-portraits function more as self-conscious exercises in the styles of his artistic forebears than studies in introspection, and the one rendered in his own style sees Degas presenting himself as a rakish if not particularly distinctive or memorable-looking artist of his day, complete with requisite chapeau and wry expression.
More revealing of both his skills as an artist and as glimpses into his personality are Degas’ photographs. Degas was passionately interested in photography, which he began to pursue in earnest during the last decades of his life though he never exhibited his photographs publicly.
It’s a shame he didn’t. Degas’ photographs share certain formal aspects and a general sensibility with his drawings and paintings, yet remain captivating works of art in their own right. Of particular interest are snapshots of a rowing expedition with composer Claude Debussy and a stunning portrait of Degas’ friend Jules Taschereau lit starkly by an open window, a small-scale masterpiece of light and shade.
A densely researched and presented exhibition, “Degas: The Private Impressionist” benefits from the Newcomb Art Gallery’s customary polish and attention to detail. Works created during Degas’ lifetime are carefully distinguished from those printed after his death, and helpful laminated placards in each gallery complement the clearly written and informative wall texts.
You’ll need one of those placards to make sense of the huge collage of portraits by and of other artists clustered on the wall of one gallery otherwise devoted to Degas’ familiar ballet and theatrical scenes. It’s a sort of 19th-century “vision board” and a simple but effective way of conveying a sense of the social and creative air Degas breathed that no descriptive wall text could easily convey.
Conversely, some of the wall texts in the show do a better job than the art in giving visitors more explicit descriptions of what Degas was like as a person. “This Degas is an original fellow,” wrote French diarist Edmond de Goncourt in 1874, “sickly, neurotic, and afflicted with eye trouble to the point of being afraid of going blind.”
Despite de Goncourt’s somewhat less-than-flattering description, nothing here touches upon the even more problematic aspects of Degas’ character, which include his apparent misogyny and documented anti-Semitism. (That’s where Google comes in handy.) It’s said that idols have feet of clay, but that’s one medium you won’t find in “Degas: The Private Impressionist.”