Art always exists within a context, despite postmodernist attempts to set it free. Edgar Degas: Six Friends at Dieppe, the current major exhibition at Rhode Island School of Design Museum (through January 15), does a comprehensive job of accomplishing something we could use more of: illuminating a dazzling period in art from within.
The centerpiece is the commanding pastel — nearly four feet tall — Six Friends at Dieppe, which received its title after being purchased for the RISD Museum in 1931. Arrayed are more than 70 items from around the time it was drawn in 1885, including photographs, books, and letters. On display are all the works by Degas that the museum owns — paintings, drawings, and sculptures.
Complementing the show are two more exhibits from the period, one on drawings by French artists and another on the influence of Japanese woodblock prints (see accompanying box).
Degas was central to Impressionism and one of the organizers of the 1874 salon de refuses show that first featured works of the movement’s progenitors, such as Renoir, Monet, Pissaro, and Morrisot. The painter and sculptor is best known for works featuring ballerinas, but racetrack scenes were another favorite subject, and several of those pastel drawings are on display here.
The title pastel by Degas is impressive in its unusual composition as well as its size. Drawn from life, the men (and one boy) are scattered about informally, like band members on an album cover. Standing apart at the left is the full-length figure of — no, not Degas, but British artist Walter Sickert. Degas met him two years before when Sickert was an apprentice to James McNeil Whistler. He is facing away from the other five who are crowded at the right, and anchored by a dignified seated figure that echoes the standing man's gaze. He is Albert Boulanger-Cavé, who briefly and reluctantly had served as censor of public spectacles for the ministry of fine art.
Facing him, as though in conversation, is a friend whom Dégas years earlier had painted chatting with against a ballet stage set, the realist artist Henri Gervex. Standing commandingly above him is Jacques-Émile Blanche, a writer, musician, and artist who had studied under Gervex, and in whose studio this assembly is being drawn. Behind him is Degas’s host in Dieppe, Ludovic Halévy, a successful writer of libretto with whom the artist shared a love of theater. Degas was thoughtful enough to have peeking out below him Halévy’s son Daniel, then nearly 13, who much enjoyed the attention of the artist and who would, in his 80s, write a biography of him (Degas parle, 1960).
Contributions by these men help fill out a snapshot of the time. There is a portrait by Blanche of his mother that intrigues us because her hand obscures the lower part of her face, a brooding contrast to the usual formal poses. Blanche’s striking 1927 portrait of Virginia Woolf, done with patchy brush strokes alien to his earlier realistic style, shows that he eventually learned to use the paint itself to convey psychological reality. Also on display is his portrait of Degas that led to the breakup of their friendship; no longer robust but certainly stately as posed here, the white-haired subject, near 70, had asked that the artist not exhibit the painting, but Blanche eventually did so anyway. Degas asked that the pastel of the six friends be returned to him, thus the museum’s eventual acquisition. (Degas had already become estranged from Halévy and Boulanger-Cavé, siding with the anti-Semites on the Dreyfus case.)
Gervex’s pieces here range from a study of a satyr to a conventional oil portrait of an elderly woman patron; between those extremes are both a sketch and the finished painting of a bare-chested dock laborer, his face in the shadow of a basket of coal on his shoulder. From Sickert we get a Dieppe street scene that shows the town had more than beaches to offer (a half-dozen post card reproductions, fully dressed visitors strolling and sitting on the sand, completes the picture). A later color drawing of his of a blurred trapeze artist merges technique and content quite nicely.
The 15 works of Degas that the museum has collected over the years span his skills and interests. The one painting is an 1858 study of a young girl in regional dress, La Savoisienne; but the one bronze is not his infinitely reproduced La petit danseuse but the equally graceful and not as frequently seen Grand Arabesque, Second Time. An exquisite, definitive ballet pastel is here, Dancer with a Bouquet. Degas added a strip of paper to the bottom, so that he could expand the figure of a spectator holding a fan, to more fully anchor the drawing.
A comprehensive catalog of the show contains four informative essays as well as illustrations, in color when appropriate, of all the works on display.
Issue Date: November 4 - 10, 2005
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