Degas exhibit shines as timeless exploration of modernism
Published: Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Updated: Thursday, October 13, 2011 08:10
Though he is famed for his expressive drawings of dancers and gripping scenes of life in 19th-century Paris, Edgar Degas also completed a series of representations of nudes throughout his career. These works are the subject of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston's (MFA) new exhibition, "Degas and the Nude," which runs until Feb. 5.
This show is the first to examine this aspect of Degas' work in its entirety, and the diverse depictions of the human figure it assembles provide a unique and fascinating insight into the art of this Impressionist master.
A Parisian at work in his ever-changing city
Edgar Degas was born in 1834 in Paris, where he would spend most of his life. He demonstrated an interest in art at a young age, and he began his formal training by copying Italian paintings in the Musée du Louvre in Paris and working in the atelier of a contemporary French artist. During the 1850s, he traveled throughout Italy, where he studied the works of the Italian Renaissance. All of these experiences stressed close attention to the representation of the human form, which would have significant impact on his future work.
Once he returned to France, Degas became one of the most celebrated artists of the 19th century. He exhibited in both the academic Salon and the famed Impressionist exhibitions of the 1870s and 1880s with artists such as Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir and Camille Pissarro.
Degas worked in a time of great political and social upheaval in France. The government changed dramatically during his lifetime, as did French society. The period saw the rise of the bourgeoisie, which coincided with a financial boom and cultural flowering.
This era of the arts manifested itself in the city's grand ballets, elaborate operas and large art exhibitions. In this same epoch, however, less savory aspects of society — including brothels — were widely popular. Degas' works reflect both of these extremes.
From the Fenway to the banks of the Seine
This exhibition, which represents the culmination of many years of research and preparation, was co-organized by George T. M. Shackelford, chair of the Art of Europe and Arthur K. Solomon Curator of Modern Art at the MFA, and Xavier Rey, curator of paintings at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.
"‘Degas and the Nude' will show you 50 years of the work of an artist who is very, very dear to my heart," Shackelford said. "I feel myself sort of steeped in him."
The show is comprised of 160 objects and brings together works of art from more than 50 different collections around the world. The Musée d'Orsay made the largest loan to the exhibition.
"Key to the success of this exhibition has been our partnership with the Musée d'Orsay, who lent more than 60 works," Malcolm Rogers, the Ann and Graham Gund director of the MFA, said. "‘Degas and the Nude' would not have been the great success that I believe it is without d'Orsay's truly exceptional commitment to the MFA and to the exhibition."
An academic introduction
The exhibition opens with an examination of Degas' early representations of the human figure, with examples of his work from the 1850s. He received classical instruction, which stressed drawing from live models as artists had done for centuries before.
"He's fundamentally a Parisian artist steeped in the traditions of French art from the 17th century to his present in the mid-1850s," Shackelford said. "[He was] very much aware of currents of art history, classically educated, a young man with an extraordinary sense of history."
This second room also explores Degas' early work, focusing on his monumental "Scene of War in the Middle Ages" (1865), which was shown at the Salon in Paris in 1865 and demonstrates Degas' continued experimentation with the human form. This room displays comparative works by other famed 19th-century artists — including Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Eugène Delacroix — whose works influenced Degas.
These first two sections do not include the colorful pastels visitors may expect to see — those come later in the show — but they provide a helpful introduction to Degas' more celebrated work.