The National Gallery of Australia’s exhibition Degas: master of French art spans the range of Edgar Degas’ work, from his early portraiture and historical subject matter, through his move to modern subject matter, and on to his late experimental paintings and photographs in the 1890s. It also examines the rich visual and literary sources that Degas drew upon in his early years.

A major exhibition theme is Degas’ transformation as an artist and his recurrent experimentation, leading to his mature and very distinctive style. It traces the development of his work from the finely crafted early paintings to those possessing a more brilliant palette and looser brushwork, and concludes with radical later works that include finger painting. This development made Degas an influential figure in the evolution of modern art — an artist whose work was admired and collected by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

There is a particular focus on Degas’ work after he became an artist of modern life. On 15 April 1874 he was one of a group of young artists who came together under the title of the ‘Société Anonyme des Artistes, Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs etc.’, with the view to showing their work independently of the official and more conservative Salon. The timing for their first exhibition was crucial. Degas, along with Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Berthe Morisot, Alfred Sisley and others, purposefully chose a date prior to the Paris Salon of that year, so as not be considered just another Salon des Refusés — a display of rejects from the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

Though the exhibiting group’s work varied in their art style, all were keen to establish a more vigorous art that related to the present day rather than dressing up figures in fanciful costumes with fanciful themes of the past. They wanted to establish a new art for a modern France. Their first exhibition was located on the second floor of the large studios formerly belonging to the photographer and balloonist Nadar, at 35 Boulevard des Capucines, close to the new opera house in Paris. Reviewing the exhibition in Le Charivari on 25 April 1874, the critic Louis Leroy pejoratively described the group as ‘Impressionists’. Some of the artists adopted the title as a badge of honour, though Degas himself found the term distasteful.

From this time, Degas came to be known for his thoroughly modern French subject matter — the ballet, behind-the-scenes views at the opera, the racetrack, the café-concert, the brothels, and depictions of milliners, laundresses and women bathing. Later, his art became more exploratory in composition and execution while also taking on the appearance of greater intimacy and more informality.

Unlike other artists associated with the Impressionists, Degas did not set out to capture a fleeting moment or to work en plein air. Despite the spontaneous appearance of his subjects, his art was carefully contrived and composed, with its sense of liveliness achieved through a thoughtful pastiche. As his art evolved, it gained a new sense of spatial arrangement, moving away from mathematical perspective to a more radical, flattened space in some instances.

Dancer adjusting her slipper  1873  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York / HO Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. HO Havemeyer, 1929  Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art  

Degas: master of French art will also explore other relevant themes in Degas’ work, such as the influence of French caricature, japonisme, literature and the theatre. Through modelling wax figures of horses, ballet dancers and bathers (which were later cast in bronze), Degas was constantly searching for ways to depict movement and form. The relationship of his sculpture to his paintings and drawings is an aspect of this exhibition.

Degas was a consummate painter, draughtsman, printmaker and sculptor, who in his later years also undertook experiments in the new medium of photography. Degas: master of French art will focus on all these arts and their interrelationships.

Jane Kinsman
Senior Curator, International Art, and curator
of Degas: master of French art