Degas' world: the rage for change

24 January – 3 May 2009 | Orde Poynton Gallery

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image: Eugéne Grasset The acid thrower c 1896 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Gift of Orde Poynton Esq, AO, CMG, 1993

Maximilien Luce  Blast-furnaces of Charleroi 1898  National Gallery of Australia, Canberra   Felix Man Collection, Special Government Grant 1972
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The exhibition Degas’ world: the rage for change is less specifically about Degas than the world he inhabited. It is about his fellow artists and friends—those who inspired him, and those he, in turn, inspired. As an exhibition it seeks to avoid the clichés of sweetness and light with which Impressionism has been interminably burdened. Instead, it is about the real world of nineteenth-century France.

History, however, craves context, and it is impossible to understand the turbulent swirl of changing ideas that is at the heart of the exhibition Degas’ world, and the notion of the rage for change that underpins it, without examining the historical context in which these ideas came to fruition. Similarly, it is impossible to understand the unfolding character of Degas’ world, and the revolutionary Impressionist exhibitions (1874–86) of which Degas was a prime instigator, without first examining some of its conceptual precedents.

When we think of ‘the artist’, particularly visual artists, we are likely to fall back on a range of familiar clichés: genius, outsider, maverick, visionary, prophet, eccentric. The romantic cliché of the artist as a talented but tortured visionary acting under the quasi-religious phenomenon of inspiration still has popular currency today. Fundamental to this conception of the artist is the notion that an artist is a gifted individual who somehow works, at best, alongside society, and, at worst, and more typically, outside it. He is, essentially, not like us; she is special, anointed. We privilege not only their activity, but their very identity.

But it has not always been so. The view of an artist as a gifted individual living somehow ‘outside’ society is a modern construct. Leaving aside a conceptual model based on the artist of antiquity, from post-medieval times until the late eighteenth century, an artist’s place in society was more likely to have been as an artisan. An artist was an employed tradesperson practising his (or, occasionally, her) craft within one of two dominant contexts—the Church or the State, the latter being not a modern state but a feudal state indissolubly linked to either a monarchy or dominant ruling aristocracy.

Each of these contexts depended on the notion of patronage. Subject matter was either religious—mostly allegorical paintings based on the Old or New Testaments, often with an overtly erotic content—or secular. Secular paintings could themselves be divided into three main categories: paintings based on mythology, again often with a highly eroticised lode (the birth of Venus, for example); paintings that were depictions of property under the guise of landscape; and paintings that were a form of portraiture, documenting either centuries-long aristocratic family lineages, a kind of DNA in paint, or much more short-term relationships based on lust.

The nineteenth century would see all of that change. The fundamental reason for why this was the case, in historical terms, is intrinsically connected with the intersection of two revolutions—one technical, the Industrial Revolution, and one socio-political, the French Revolution. These became the warp and weft of a new sieve by which society (at least Western society) was sifted. The glittering new currency that would be left once the dross was disposed of—what would come to underpin this new society’s basic structure—would be the idea of the sanctity of the individual.

The Industrial Revolution heralded a move away from a largely agrarian, feudal society to one that was more urban. It saw the emergence of a new social order with new social stratifications—it saw, for example, the emergence not only of a new merchant class but also of a wealthy middleclass (a bourgeoisie) and an urban proletariat. What the French Revolution did was to take this new socio-economic order and liberate it from its now anachronistic feudal structure by imposing a new political order. Central to this order, was the 1804 Code Napoléon, the French civil code established under Napoleon I.

The code not only established the fundamental democratic notion of popular sovereignty and civil equality but, importantly, introduced two new concepts upon which this new order was based—the notions of equality (at least for men) before the law and freedom of religious expression. In addition, Napoleon introduced the notion of promotion based on merit or talent or both. He specifically introduced this notion to subvert the sort of corruption that so thoroughly characterised the Ancien Régime. The effect of these three features of the Code Napoléon was, firstly, to formally entrench the notion of the individual as the fundamental unit in society in a way that had formally not been the case and, secondly, to consolidate the idea that as individuals, members of society had certain inalienable rights. These ideas would be crucial in the unfolding of what would take place in artistic circles in the 1870s.

As the nineteenth century progressed, the French Revolution, or at least the idea of revolution as a popular uprising, also became the preferred template for social change in France and, later, elsewhere. The political structure of modern France was becoming well established: French society was increasingly urbanised and had a significant emerging merchant class, a developing bourgeoisie and a significant urban proletariat. The status of Napoleon himself had changed: he was now seen as a kind of archetype of the visionary individual, one who acted as an avatar for change.

image: Eugéne Grasset The acid thrower c 1896 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Gift of Orde Poynton Esq, AO, CMG, 1993

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec Le jockey 1899  National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
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Given that this was the case, what then was the nexus between the changing political landscape of nineteenth-century France and the aesthetic upheaval that followed the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874?

To answer this question, it’s necessary to step back and have a look at the role the Salon played in French artistic life. From 1725, the Salon was the only significant arena in which artists in France could show their works. Organised annually, it was the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. From 1748, works for display were selected by a jury who were either members of the academy or previously awarded artists. By 1848, the Salon was the biggest annual art event in the world. The structure of the Salon and the way it functioned deliberately echoed the structure of the wider French world. It was simultaneously a quasi-judicial model—it had a jury—but, unfortunately, it was also one that was open to corruption, or was perceived to be corrupt.

In the 1850s and 1860s, many artists increasingly questioned the jury’s selections. As has been argued above, the social history of the first half of the nineteenth century from the perspective of an emerging middle class, of which artists were part, is the history of how the concepts of equality before the law and freedom of expression became imbedded in an individual’s psyche. These two principles had become the accepted and expected norm. The way the Salon behaved (or appeared to behave) offended, in particular, the now firmly established concept of equality before the law—in this case, represented by the judgments made by the Salon jury with respect to the works they selected. The consequences of this were important—selection or non-selection could make or break an artist’s career, and artists now lived in a modern commercial world without (generally) the patronage of either the Church or the State. In the 1860s particularly, the Salon’s increasingly arbitrary and aberrant behaviour also offended the now codified notion of promotion based on talent—no matter how subjective this notion of talent might have been—in a very significant way.

While discontent with the Salon exhibitions and the jury process had been simmering for some time, and exhibitions of rejected works had been organised on a semi-regular basis for decades, the 1863 Salon show, with its rejection of more than 3000 works, caused an uproar. The State, for the first time, stepped in to sponsor an exhibition of works that had been rejected. This became known as the famous Salon des refusés (The rejects exhibition).

A comment by Théophile Thoré about the 1863 exhibition indicates just how moribund and irrelevant the Salon had become:

The French School, such as it appears in the Salon show of 1863, doesn’t signify anything. It is no longer religious, or philosophical; there’s absolutely no history, and there’s no poetry. It simultaneously lacks any reference to the traditions of the old, or the imagination of the new.1

Eleven years later, in 1874, things came to a head. Unable to bear the continuing ignominy of having to submit works to a jury they perceived as being either incompetent or corrupt, Edgar Degas and a group of his friends decided they would no longer show with the Salon (although some of them still did). Instead, they formed the Société anonyme des peintres, sculpteurs et graveurs (the Cooperative Society of Painters, Sculptors and Printmakers).

On 28 March 1874 the following simple notice appeared in La chronique des arts et de la curiosité (The Chronicle of Arts and Curiosities)and elsewhere:

The exhibition of the Societé anonyme des peintres, sculpteurs et graveurs will open on 15 April at M Nadar’s salons, boulevard des Capucines.

And so, in this modest, unembellished and unassuming way, the most revolutionary change in the history of art was quietly ushered in. Strategically, Degas and his co-conspirators held their first show two weeks before the official Salon exhibition opened. Jean Prouvaire, in the edition of Le rappel (The Recall) of 20 April 1974, wrote:

What [these artists] have done is quite audacious, and this in itself is enough to make claims on our sympathy. And audacity is not their only plus. It’s almost like the curtain going up before the real play begins—sometimes the prelude is better than the main event.

Reaction to the exhibition, given its modest heralding, was astonishingly instantaneous. Armand Silvestre, writing in L’opinion nationale a mere week after the exhibition opened, commented: ‘For a week now, they are all we’ve heard about …’. And while opinion was divided with respect to the relative merits of the works on display, some contemporary commentators were staggeringly astute about the historical significance of what they were seeing. A mere fortnight after the show opened, Jules Castagnary, in a wonderful summary of what had led up to this event, had this to say in the 29 April 1874 edition of Le siècle (The Century):

A couple of years ago, there was a rumour getting around artists’ studios about the birth of a new school of painting … The members of the [Salon] jury, with their usual intelligence tried to block the way of these new comers. They closed the doors of the Salon to them, prevented them from getting any publicity, and by every idiotic means which egotism, stupidity or envy has at its disposal in this world to express itself, did their best to make them the object of ridicule. Well, I swear to you on Cabanel’s ashes, and those of Gérôme, that there’s talent here, and a lot of it. These young people have a way of apprehending nature that has nothing dull or banal about it. It’s alive, agile, light. It’s ravishing. How quickly an object has been perceived, how intelligent has been its execution. Yes, it is a kind of summary, but how true the details are.

Charles de Malte’s exhortation in the journal Paris à l’eaux-fortes (Paris Etched) of 19 April 1874, on the other hand, could not have been more simple: ‘In short, I urge you to go and see this fireworks display of riotous colour. You’ll come away with a sense of something new …’.

Not all the commentary, however, was positive. But even if it was negative it was often expressed with characteristic nineteenth-century wit. In La patrie (The Homeland) on 21 April 1874, for example, a commentator writing under the initials ALT memorably expressed their distaste for the exhibition:

Do you remember the Salon des refusés exhibition, the first one, where you could see nude women the colour of an indisposed Bismarck, and jonquil-yellow horses, and Marie-Louise blue trees. Well then! That exhibition was a Louvre, a Pitti Palais, an Uffizi compared to what’s on display at the boulevard des Capucines.

The level of sophistication, whether positive or negative, of much of the contemporary commentary on the first Impressionist exhibitions is still astonishing today. Of the second exhibition, held in 1876, in a piece that is as remarkable for its insight as it is for its achingly poetic elegance, Arthur Baignères wrote in the L’écho universel (The Universal Echo), 17 April 1876:

After having broken with tradition, [these artists] have systematically formulated the theory of the impression. Nature renders us impressionable; art makes us impressionists. Our eyes are corrupted by study. What we have to do is to keep the eye innocent and allow it to do nothing but see. Our hands must be at the service of our eyes like a clumsy but sincere workman and they must restrict themselves to faithfully expressing only what the eyes have seen. Here we have then the art of painting reduced to a sort of telegraphic mechanism; the first apparatus is the eye, the second the hand, the third is the canvas onto which impressions are registered like letters on the sky-blue paper of a telegram.

image: Eugéne Grasset The acid thrower c 1896 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Gift of Orde Poynton Esq, AO, CMG, 1993

Pierre Bonnard The bath c 1925 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
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The underlying rage for change in the 1874 exhibition, and those that followed (eight in total from 1874 to 1886), was so powerful that it would break, once and for all, the Academy’s stranglehold on the practice of art in nineteenth-century France. Finally, art would be freed of the tired and anachronistic classicism that it had been shackled with for the preceding 300 years. More importantly, Degas’ group of mavericks, and these breakaway exhibitions, would become the model for the myriad secession movements that would follow over the next 50 years.

More than 50 artists would show works at the eight so-called Impressionist (the name went through a number of changes) exhibitions from 1874 to 1886. They included artists such as Mary Cassatt, Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Camille Pissarro and Paul Signac, all of whom are represented in Degas’ world: the rage for change. Also included in Degas’ world are works by artists who were friends of the Impressionists and of Degas in particular: Emile Bernard, Pierre Bonnard, Henri-Edmond Cross, Eugène Grasset, Maximilien Luce and the incomparable Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. And there are also works by a number of important precursors on display: Honoré Daumier, Paul Gavarni and Camille Corot and more.

What the collection of works in this exhibition demonstrates is that these representations of Degas’ world have little to do with the overused saccharine clichés of sweetness and light with which Impressionism and Post-Impressionism have been interminably burdened. What we have here are depictions of a world in the throes of intense change—a world of factories, of pollution, of a dispossessed and alienated urban poor, of nascent feminism. For every dancing floozy in this exhibition, there is an aging, hollow-eyed female junkie; for every innocent, oblivious child, there is the pathetic barely living corpse of some has-been courtesan; for every summery frolic on a beach, there is a spectral face caught in the momentary light of a Paris night. For all that is light, there is much that is dark. This is the real world, not some mindless confection that gives a bad name to the art of the time. Here is art’s other face, the one the Salon did not want to see.

Now that the historical dust has settled, we can see that each of the artists represented in this exhibition has in some way joined the pantheon of those who were at the forefront of the rage for change that characterised the period, a rage that would see the world of the nineteenth century hurtling headlong into the chaos of the twentieth.

Mark Henshaw
Curator, International Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books
National Gallery of Australia

All works in the exhibition Degas’ world: the rage for change are from the National Gallery of Australia’s International Print collection.


All translations from the original French are by the author.

1 Théophile Thoré, Salons de W Bürger 1861 à 1868, 2 vols, Librairie de Ve Jules Renouard, Paris, 1870, p 269.