Winter Masterpiece: Degas

Painting is not at all difficult when you don’t know anything about it. But when you know, oh, it’s something quite different. –Edgar Degas

French artist Edgar Degas was a radical realist whose unconventional work spanned diverse media and moved other master artists such as Picasso. Celebrating his heritage,Degas: A new vision’ is featuring as a winter masterpiece until 18 September 2016 at the National Galleries Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne.

The NGV exhibition stages a chronological and thematic premier of Degas’ work by decade, using illuminating inscriptions alongside his phenomenal art to shed insight into the hand and mind of this brilliant artist.

Born into an artistic and multicultural family in Paris in 1834, Degas was an intellectually enthused creative influenced by exposure to France, Italy and America. His reading list included literary realists and romanticists like Émile Zola, Gustave Flaubert and Victor Hugo. He idolized the French artists Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Eugène Delacroix and Honoré Daumier. Surrounding himself with impressionist and post-impressionist artists including Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Goph and Camille Pissarro, and art critics like Théodore Duret and Louis Duranty, Degas was stimulated to try manifold forms of art against unassuming or intense backgrounds.

He was inspired by Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro, his showcasing of the effect of light and shade. Degas’ zest with light is manifest at the start of the NGV display. Exhibits showing first modellings with siblings, family members and friends in dignified suits or floor-length dresses showcase experiments in a studio with artificial light from oil lamps or stage footlights.

Degas explored the human form, like in the nude study of a seated man in three-quarter rear view, hands together.

No art is less spontaneous than mine. What I do is a result of reflection and studies of the Old Masters. Of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament, I know nothing. –Edgar Degas

Revolutionary in his openness to new forms of expression, even delving into Japanese art, Degas worked with diverse motifs such as pen, graphite, chalk, charcoal, water colour, pastel, gouache, oil on canvas, oil on cardboard, oil on linen… even turpentine in black and white monotypes, and photography.

His realist paintings captured the aloof, the still or the resigned, with mirrors, chandeliers, carpets and upholstery in deliberate contrast against ambiguous backgrounds. He told story by adding or omitting, for example highlighting the subject’s hands to denote an artist, or displaying the absence of a little girl’s leg or a dog’s head in a family portrait (The Bellelli Family) to accentuate an ambience of unease.

The fluid and continuous nature of his works, some encompassing series of variants, expose a true exercise in precision. Historical paintings include images of ancient Greece, a young Alexander the Great taming a wild horse, stories from the Old Testament and conflicts set in the Middle Ages.

Inspired by van Gogh, Pissarro and French watercolourist and printmaker Joseph Tourney, Degas carefully painted layers, patterns and fabric, as exampled in the genre scene of a Roman beggar woman holding a walking stick and wearing many layers of clothing, gazing in the distance.

His fascination with the female form and studies of movement is evident in his women at work, women in intimate moments, women in brothels or women at their toilette series. In later years, Degas used what he termed ‘an orgy of light’ in motion art that captured music and dance in a ballet series.

When we are in love with nature, we can never know whether she loves us in return. –Edgar Degas

Despite his disdain for open-air painting, perhaps a result of the weakness of his eyes and their vulnerability to bright light, Degas astounded his peers and critics with landscape and beast paintings such as Beach at a low tide (1869), Horses in a meadow (1871) and Dead fox in the undergrowth (1861–64), also on view in the NGV show.

As he embraced new and unusual techniques of the time, Degas became enamoured of photography, where he continued his play with the effects of light.

Upon his death, at his request, the legendary artist received no eulogy, simply a statement that this was a man who loved art very much. But this was not his last word. His final legacy was a collection of 150 wax sculptures of racehorses, ballerinas and women bathing, found in his studio after his death.

You must have an elevated idea not of what you do, but what you can one day do. Without this it is not worth the trouble looking. –Edgar Degas

Roman Beggar Woman
Roman Beggar Woman
The Bellelli Family
The Bellelli Family

The NGV has assembled an indulgent collection, over 200 pieces from worldwide collections, in this global premiere reappraising the lifework of a revolutionary maestro.

Tickets on sale now from

Adults $28 / Concession $24.50 / Child $10 / Family (2 adults, 3 children) $65

Photography of paintings and studies by Eugen Bacon, courtesy of NGV