For Degas, the most instinctive, immediate way to capture a subject was to draw it. Rather than aiming for a perfect ideal or contrived beauty, Degas regarded drawing as “a way of seeing form”: an naturally-evolving journey of exploration. Degas’ emphasis on drawing as being a process of revision and correction comes through noticeably in the instantaneous, experimental feel of his work. For Degas, a drawing could never really be complete: rather, he was constantly correcting things, repeating tracings, and adding to variations in line and tone.
I chose to explore Degas for this blog post because, when flicking through art books in Lilly Library, I was struck by the distinctive combination of tradition and revolution embodied in Degas’ drawings. My eye was initially caught by the enormous variation across his body of work, with distinct approaches reflecting evolutions in Degas’ drawing style and subject-matter over his career. The soft, gradual tone of Degas’ early static portraits strikes a contrast with the vivacious sense of movement captured in his ballet dancers, as well as the harsh angularity of his jockey series. I was also drawn to the bold creative spirit present in Degas’ drawings, which posed challenges to many artistic conventions and is effective in imparting a sense of human personality and emotion in his work. Degas departed from the artistic status quo in his compositions by adopting unusual angles-of-view, and by cropping closely into his subject matter. I find these techniques to be effective in creating a strong sense of drama and a theatrical intensity in Degas’ drawings.
Despite his innovative use of composition, though, Degas’ drawings had their foundations in well-established artistic tradition. In fast, the easiest records of Degas’ career refer to him copying paintings at the Louvre. In this period of apprenticeship, which lasted until he was 30 years old, Degas studied Renaissance and classical French artists closely, and strove to emulate the drawings of Raphael and Michelangelo. Although conventional artistic tradition underpinned much of Degas’ distinctive drawing technique, he also drew inspiration from wider sources, incorporating Courbet’s realism and the simple lines of Japanese imagery.
In this blog post I have chosen to evaluate six of Degas’ drawings, which I think capture his core drawing philosophy and techniques, as well as his developing style and subject-matter over the course of his life.
Therese de Gas, c. 1885
Pencil on buff paper
32 x 28.4 cm
This drawing pictures the elder of Degas’ two sisters. I particularly like the artist’s use of crisp lines and varying tone, which comes through particularly emphatically in the light patch and darker strands of the girl’s hair. In addition, the traditional portrait side-view, fine pencil detail and subtle shading-work gives the figure an almost sculptural quality. In my view, Degas manages to capture Therese de Gas’ adolescent identity strikingly effectively through the fixed, self-assured nature of her gaze.
Italian Head, c. 1856
Charcoal on yellow, woven paper
38 x 26 cm
This drawing is thought to have been produced by Degas while he was working in Rome. As another of Degas’ early works, it again adopts the side-on pose reminiscent of many traditional portraits in art history. Degas made several studies of this man, using his distinctive facial features and even the fold of his short collar to showcase a dramatic tonal range. I felt a particularly strong sense of drama in this piece due to the high level of contrast between the darks of the man’s hair, chin and neck, and the lights of his forehead, cheek bone and the bridge of his nose. Degas employs a charcoal blending stump in this drawing to create shadows and subtle gradation that adds further to the realism and three-dimensional feel of the drawing.
Nude Youth for ‘The Young Spartans’, 1860
Pencil on white paper
28.5 x 17.7 cm
Moving the focus away from the head and towards the torso in this drawing, I find Degas’ use of line and tone to be highly effective in creating a sense of continuation, fluidity and classical elegance. The artist’s use of soft mark-making and mid-tones accentuates the body’s contours, giving the piece a natural feel and a distinctive feeling of warmth. To my mind, by choosing to focus his composition on the man’s torso rather than his facial features, Degas creates a palpable sense of energy, movement and human strength in this piece.
Hands of Mlle Dubourg, 1866
Pencil on white paper
17 x 22.3 cm
By cropping in on a woman’s clapped hands in this detailed study-drawing (which informed a full-body portrait of the woman), Degas’ variations in line weight and composition become all-the-more apparent. The heavier mark-making where her hands meet accentuates the interlocking of the woman’s fingers, while the finer details, such as her fingernails, create a powerful sense of realism. Despite Degas’ impressive control of line, though, this drawing retains a sense of looseness and freedom in its mark-making. This is demonstrative of Degas’ wider transition in drawing style from the more-controlled feel of his early portraits to the the more energetic, free-flowing style of his later ballet dancer and jockey drawings.
Melina Darde Seated, 1878
31 x 23 cm
When I first saw it, this drawing immediately captured my attention because of its unexpected composition. Looking down on a ballerina over her hunched shoulders, Degas’ unexpected perspective creates a strong sense of vulnerability in this drawing that reflects the girl’s young age, and strikes a contrast with the intense control and self-discipline of ballet dancing. Departing from the historically-traditional angles of his earlier portraits, Degas employs unexpected viewpoints in his ballet dancer series to capture the physicality and sense of flexibility enshrined in dancing. Degas also focuses his ballet dancer series on the movement of the whole human form and not simply the face, explaining: “my chief interest in dancers lies in rendering movement”. For me, Degas is very effective in capturing this sense of dynamism and energy through his sweeping pencil movements and expressive mark-making. I have drawn inspiration from his use of cross-hatching, which creates tonal variation, and thus adds to the depth and realism of the piece.
Jockey in Profile, c. 1882
Charcoal on cream paper
48 x 31 cm
I chose to examine this drawing because Degas’ rough, strong application of charcoal — a strikingly different medium from pencil — denotes a further evolution in his drawing style. The harsh angularity and bold strength of Degas’ mark-making creates a sense of strength and masculinity that perfectly captures the essence of jockeys and horse racing. The rougher, looser feel of the charcoal application in this piece, together with the variety of initial sketch lines that Degas has chosen not to erase, creates a feeling of immediacy and boldness that is very much representative of the subject matter. For me, the unconventional viewing-angle, strong tonal contrast and variety of mark-making techniques present in this piece are emblematic of Degas’ overall style. In blending tradition with innovation, Degas pioneered a drawing technique that I find to be distinctive, innovative and highly flexible according to his subject matter.
Sutherland Boggs, Jean. Drawings By Degas. City Art Museum of St Louis. (1966)
Schenkel, Ruth. “Edgar Degas (1834–1917): Painting and Drawing.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. http://goo.gl/8puda (October 2004)
Trachtman, Paul. “Degas and His Dancers.” Smithsonian Magazine. http://goo.gl/ilUpbh (April 2003)