I haven’t posted an article since Epiphany, Ukraine’s Christmas. I was very busy during the last month. John has been evicted, but there is nothing I can do to help him. He requires more than I can offer. A home for seniors could be his best option. John suffers from Ménière’s disease. He is nearly deaf and he hugs the walls.
But today February is foremost in my mind. It has been extremely cold. We missed groundhog day but we did not Candlemas, la chandeleur. La Chandeleur invites longer days. In the Northern hemisphere, each new day is slightly longer than the previous day. Candlemas, is also the day Simeon recognized the child Jesus as the Savior and the day His mother was purified.
Hendrick Avercamp (1585-1634) is a painter of the Dutch Golden Age of painting. He was born in Amsterdam, where he was trained by Danish-born portrait painter Pieter Isaacsz. He moved to Kampen in 1608. Avercamp’s favorite subject matter was winter inhabited by people and their pets going about their everyday activity: working, fishing, or skating and otherwise amusing themselves on the ice. In other words, he was genre artist when genre painting was a new frontier. Moreover, Avercamp lived during a period known as the “little ice age.”
Interestingly, Avercamp painted as though he stood slightly above his subject matter. He used an aerial perspective. He made sketches of his winter scenes which he transformed into paintings in warmer seasons. Hendrick Avercamp was mute and probably deaf, and he is therefore known as “de Stomme van Kampen.”
February was a busy month, but we have almost caught up. The Pagan precursor of St Valentine’s Day was Lupercalia.
However, from time to time, I enjoy looking at many artworks executed by the same artist in order to see whether or not I will find an aspect of his or her legacy I had not noticed or paid attention to earlier. For instance, although I knew that Japonisme had an immense impact on the art of Toulouse-Lautrec, I did not know to what extent he had been influenced by Edgar Degas (19 July 1834 – 27 September 1917). Nor had I seen the horses!
Toulouse-Lautrec had art teachers. The first one was René Princeteau, an animal artist or peintre animalier, and an acquaintance of Henri’s father. His other teachers were Léon Bonnat and Fernand Cormon, “academicists.” But when he rented a studio in Montmartre and became Montmartre’s chronicler, he produced artwork that differed substantially from the work of his teachers. He made posters showing the Moulin Rouge, Aristide Bruant and the various entertainers of Montmartre. Bruant was a colourful singer and composer and the cabaret he owned, the Mirliton, became a showroom for Toulouse-Lautrec. Toulouse-Lautrec also illustrated Bruant’s songs and other songs.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec enjoyed painting people, including nudes, but like Degas, he did not embellish his models. He painted people not necessarily as they were, but as he saw them, which excluded idealization and rule-governed art.
“Lines were no longer bound to what was anatomically correct; colours were intense and in their juxtapositions generated a pulsating rhythm; laws of perspective were violated in order to place figures in an active, unstable relationship with their surroundings.”[i]
“The Woman with a Tub” brings to mind Degas’ various depictions of bathers. One cannot say that Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrayal of a woman pouring water into her tiny tub is flattering. But it is fine genre painting, i.e. depictions of people going about their daily activities. Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrayal of “Madame Palmyre with her Dog,” is a true-to-life ‘snapshot.’ As for “Woman at her Toilette,” it has long been a celebrated painting. But no one is posing.
Then come the horses. Both Edgar Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec painted horses. In this regard, Toulouse-Lautrec’s first art teacher had prepared the artist for depicting animals, horses mainly. Besides, Toulouse-Lautrec was an aristocrat. Aristocrats ride horses and go to the races. In Paris, the racecourse would be Longchamp, in the Bois de Boulogne. You will find, below, a painting of le comte Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri’s father, driving horses. There are horses in Toulouse-Lautrec’s “bestiary.” The “Jockey” was painted two years before Toulouse-Lautrec died. And there are dogs. But the only cat I found is the one you will see if you click on May Belfort, Jardin de Paris, 1883. Lautrec was an extremely prolific artist, so there may be more.
Edgar Degas (b. Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas [19 July 1834 – 27 September 1917])
We associate the art of Edgar Degas with portraits, the depiction of ballet dancers, horses, horse racing, and people engaged in everyday activity (genre painting). We also know that he taught Mary Cassatt to make etchings. It proved extremely useful as Cassatt would later make prints using drypoint. In 1890, Cassatt visited the Paris Japanese Arts Exhibition of 1890 (wood-block ukiyo-e prints), held at the École des Beaux-Arts. That exhibition had such an impact on artist Mary Cassatt that she decided to devote the following year to making prints. In short, Cassatt and Degas were very good friends.
Degas’ Apparent Serenity
When I started studying the fine arts, our teacher, Tony Emery, told the class that Degas’ lovely depictions of ballerinas expressed not serenity, but a rather dark view of the world. Another teacher, Professor Alan Gowans[i] made similar statements. The ballet dancer is “the perfect symbol of a rigidly organized society.” Degas was “commenting of the human condition.”[ii] The industrial revolution had transformed humans into robot-like workers who performed the same motion in a repetitive manner, as did ballet dancers.
Remember William Blake‘s (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827) “dark Satanic Mills.” The “dark Satanic Mills” may have been Blake’s response to “orthodox churches of the establishment,” (see The Gardian) but it was also a response to the industrial revolution. Humans working in factories were like the machines they used to produce “goods.” In this regard, Professor Gowans points to three paintings: “The Bellilli Family,” “The Cotton Merchants” (1863), and “The Milliners’ Shop.” In “The Bellilli family,” we sense rigidity. In “The Cotton Merchants,” human beings stand behind the cotton. In “The Milliners’ Shop,” the milliner sits behind the “hats and hat racks.” They completely “dominate the milliner herself.”[iii]
(Please click on the smaller images to enlarge them.)
Professor Gowans also refers to Degas’ “handling of the nude.” Degas’ bathers are depicted “climbing awkwardly and unobtrusively in and out of bathtubs, having their hair dried, and so on…” (See Woman Leaving Her Bath.)[iv] For my part, however, I rather like the painting featured at the top of this post, but other portraits of nudes are less flattering. Degas tended to paint anonymous human beings. We see the back of their head or body. However, his paintings are consistent with genre painting. He captures his subjects in medias res, in the midst of things (Horace).
Degas was born, in Paris, to a wealthy family. His mother was a Creole and he had family, a brother, an uncle and other relatives, in Louisiana. Degas visited with them after the Franco-Prussian War. He was in New Orleans in 1872-73, living at his uncle’s home. After his father’s death, he learned that his brother René had incurred an enormous debt. Degas therefore sold the family home in Paris as well as the artwork he had inherited. He would, however, become an avid collector when he started selling his own artwork.
In 1853, Degas enrolled in the Faculty of Law at the University of Paris, where he was not an enthusiastic student. He did however have a studio in the family’s home. To begin with, he was therefore mostly self-trained and did not enter the École des Beaux-Arts until he met Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (29 August 1780 – 14 January 1867) who encouraged him to pursue a career in the fine arts. So, two years after enrolling in the Faculty of Law, he entered l’École des Beaux-Arts where he was a student of Louis Lamothe. Later, in 1861, he visited his childhood friend Paul Valpinçon, in Normandy, where he made studies of horses. Horse racing would become the subject matter of many of his paintings.
Degas disliked being called an Impressionist. In fact, other artists, such as Mary Cassatt and Édouard Manet, were artists whose artwork had been rejected by the Salon, the official exhibition of Paris’ École des Beaux-Arts. They were the refusés. There was only one Salon des refusés, in 1763. Consequently, it may be useful to revisit Impressionism. It was not a genuine “school,” except for a common wish to suggest or evoke, a wish stemming, to a large extent, from the invention of photography as well as Japonisme. The ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) prints artists and art lovers collected were mass-produced prints.
However, Degas would make fun of artists who worked en plein air. Moreover Degas preferred to be described as a realist. He may in fact have known “naturalist,” writers, the most prominent being French author Émile Zola, its founder. We have reached a point in the history of art where there occurred a blending of the visual arts, literature and music. During Degas’ lifetime, Émile Zola was a key figure among French writers and intellectuals. But unlike Zola, who wrote the famous J’Accuse during the Dreyfus affair, blatant anti-Semitism on the part of the French military and the French clergy — the latter apologized, Degas had no sympathy for Jews nor, for that matter, anyone else.
At the age of 35, Degas started losing his eyesight and died a nearly blind man. As he aged, he grew into an embittered individual which may have been caused by the progressive loss of his most precious sense: sight, not to mention skepticism as to his condition, the skepticism the deaf face: “he or she hears when he or she wants to.” One thinks of Ludwig van Beethoven (baptized 17 December 1770 – 26 March 1827) whose hearing was impaired beginning with the “Eroica,” Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major (Op. 55), first performed on 7 April 1805, when he was 35.
So, according to two of my teachers, Degas was one of the first artists to depict the profound sense of alienation that characterizes modern “man,” i.e. men and women. In such cases, magical realism, the ability to fantasize, falls short of a human being’s needs.
I will conclude by pointing out that reception is a factor in the description and classification of works of art. For many of us, Degas’ dancers are graceful and carefree young women who have the innocence of his fourteen-year-old little dancer, featured below.
Fourteen-year Old Little Dancer, 1881
(Photo Credit: Wikipaintings)
_____________________________[i]Alan Gowans, The Restless Art, A History of Painters and Painting 1760 – 1960 (Philadelphia and New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1966), p. 209.
[ii]Gowans, loc. cit.
[iii]Gowans, loc. cit.
[iv] Gowans, loc. cit.Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (7 May 1840 – 6 November 1893)
“Swan Lake” Op. 20, (composed in 1875–1876)
Armonie Symphony Orchestra