The Drawings of Degas

Drawing is the artist’s most direct and spontaneous expression, a species of writing: it reveals, better than does painting, his true personality.” Such was French artist Edgar Degas’ outlook when it came to drawing, and it is that intense intimacy that can be witnessed in his works on paper.

Edgar Degas (1834-1914) is most often aligned with the Impressionists, whose aim in the closing decades of the 20th century was to revolutionize the artist’s approach to a composition. Their main innovations were the ways in which they conjured atmosphere and time. They adjusted their palettes, for example, to convey the light and conditions in which they painted, and they modified their brushstrokes from refined strokes to quick bursts of paint to convey a sense of immediacy in their compositions.

Degas frequently tempered the oft-idealized sensibilities that permeated Impressionist works – the perfect light, the balanced compositions – with an air of Realism, capturing scenes as they actually occurred. Along with this realness, Degas was fascinated with the concept that a composition could chronicle a moment in time. This snapshot-like quality, which was in part inspired by the then-rising field of photography, is what unites many of Degas’ works.




Edgar Degas, Three Studies of a Dancer in Fourth Position, 1879-1880 Charcoal and pastel with stumping (author’s image)

While Degas tackled a range of subject matter, his oeuvre reveals that he returned consistently to images of both classical ballet dancers on the stage and horse racers on the track. At first these two topics seem wholly disparate, and yet further contemplation reveals that they both share the crucial connection of time, which fascinated Degas. Ballet choreography, for instance, is tied to expert timing, as is horse racing, a sport wherein the notion of the “photo finish” began.

Thus, Degas sought in his scenes both of dancers and of jockeys to convey this instantaneousness, and it is perhaps best revealed when looking at charcoal drawings. In both Three Studies of a Dancer and Horse and Rider, for example, each stroke takes on its own sense of movement, as if the viewer can almost imagine the artist’s hand moving with rapidity across the surface of the paper. And, while Three Studies of a Dancer in Fourth Position is admittedly more staged, one can note that Horse and Rider tackles the particularly complicated idea of a horse in motion.




Edgar Degas, Horse and Rider, 1887-90 Charcoal on cream card (author’s image)


Desiring more Degas? One of the current exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago showcases this pursuit of immediacy in Degas’ oeuvre through a range of drawings (including those seen in this blog), pastels, and oils. Entitled “Degas: At the Track, On the Stage,” this installation is one view through February 2016. Do you have a favourite drawing by Degas? Have you seen the Art Institute exhibition? Tell us about your experience!

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