The National Gallery of Victoria’s exhibition Degas: A New Vision, is the most comprehensive collection of the works by the French painter and sculptor, Edgar Degas(1834-1917) since 1988.
There are some wonderful individual pieces to inspect in this brilliantly curated exhibition and I urge you to see before it ends on September 18th. And as you learn more about Degas, you will see a case study in how to resist the pressures of a peer group to adopt fashionable left-wing attitudes, and indeed how to pursue an individual vision which rejects easy labels. While as a youth he rebelled against ‘the Establishment’, he did not simply become a dutiful member of the alternative movement which was in turn to establish its own period of dominance.
While commonly labelled as one of the founders of French impressionist, Degas actually took great exception to being called an ‘impressionist’.
The French impressionists were at their peak in the 1870s and 80s and were radical artists who set out to flout the rigid rules of artistic convention strictly enforced by the Academy of Fine Arts.
According to the Academy, historical subjects, religious themes and portraits were in but landscapes and still life were out. Being quite partial to portraying the latter, the impressionists started their own society so that they could avoid rejection by the Academy and freely exhibit their works.
Despite his almost fanatical aversion to landscape painting, Degas joined the impressionist society anyway. But once a member, he mocked his fellow artists on account of their predilection for ‘painting outdoors.’ This did not endear him to the likes of Monet or Renoir.
Degas believed that the medium of drawing was far superior to splashing colour about on canvas. As an old man, he lamented that were he to begin his career again, he would have ignored colour altogether and stuck to black and white.
Another fascinating fact about Degas is that unlike many of his fellow artists, he was socially and politically conservative. He was hostile to the left-wing ideology of collective work and ‘real action’ and chose to reject the bohemian absinthe -fuelled existence of his colleagues in favour of a respectable, and some would argue, hum drum existence.
Moreover, Degas came from an upper middle class family which had accumulated its wealth from a variety of unashamedly capitalist ventures such as stockbroking and banking. His mother’s Creole family had established themselves in the cotton industry in New Orleans.
In 1872 and he travelled to New Orleans to stay with his cousins, and found the ‘colonial’ society very attractive. It was there that he painted A Cotton Office in New Orleans.
However, after returning to Paris in 1873, Degas found out that his brother had amassed substantial debts, so he sold his house and an art collection he had inherited, and used the money to pay off the debts.
For the first time in his life, Degas was required to earn an income as his survival became dependent upon sales of his artwork. Degas then went ahead to produce much of his greatest work and still made an excellent living, thus demonstrating that necessity is indeed the mother of invention.
Dr Bella d'Abrera is the Director, Foundations of Western Civilisation Programme at the Institute at Public Affairs.