Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Private Impressionist: Edgar Degas at Newcomb

Before the Race, 1895
Self Portrait, 1857
Perhaps more than any other impressionist, Edgar Degas continues to fascinate. But why? It may have to do with his signature mix of familiarity and mystery, qualities that describe both the personality and the art of this Paris-born, self-proclaimed "son of Louisiana." Anyone who attended art historian Marilyn Brown's recent lecture, Cotton and Global Capitalism, could infer as much as she eloquently explored the dynamics of his painting, The Cotton Office, as both a family portrait and a sign of the times, as his prominent local kin stoically struggled with the challenges they faced in 1870s New Orleans. The Cotton Office was the first impressionist painting to be purchased by a French museum, which made Degas an art star, but this Newcomb expo offers  nothing quite so epochal. Instead, these mostly small prints, drawings and occasional photographs, from the Robert Flynn Johnson collection, read almost like a visual diary of his everyday life as it was lived. Works by other artists in his circle reinforce an impression of personal mementos, memorabilia left behind by an esteemed, if eccentric, public figure.

Plough Horse, 1861
Achille Degas, 1853
In Degas' best known paintings, ballet dancers appear in an gauzy nimbus of pastel luminosity, but here they are more likely to be hanging out backstage. Similarly, some preoccupied figures on a beach seem oblivious to the sun and surf, and in a lithograph, Before the Race, 1895, top, the jockeys just seem to be "horsing around." Such scenes, typical of his prints, convey a candid view of everyday life in 19th century France. Some, like a self portrait, above left, reveal "X" marks, indicating a cancelled plate. Because his editions were so small, and demand persisted, prints from cancelled plates were an affordable option. His drawings are more minimal. In an early, 1853 portrait, his swarthy younger brother, Achille, slouches decorously as he gazes back at us. In a couple of later paintings, he looks distinctly Afro-Creole, and in fact Degas had many black local relatives--most notably Norbert Rillieux, the inventor of modern sugar refining. Diverse kinships were commonplace in 19th century New Orleans. Degas always tried to be true to his subjects, but few were more mysterious than his own aristocratic, yet exotic, family. ~Bookhardt

Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist: Works on paper by Degas and his Circle, Through May 17, Newcomb Art Gallery, Tulane University, 865-5328. Left: Heads of a Man and a Woman, 1877-78.