In the face of change
This is a portrait of a decision; an autobiography in oils in which choice and consequence are contemplated. It is a record, rare in its depth of personal candor, that Edgar Degas needed to leave only once.Skip to next paragraph
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The decision -- its inevitability, the simplicity of its logic -- is obvious only to history. It was not always so. In 1854, at the age of 20, Degas decided to quit the study of law for that of art. It was a decision in stark defiance of the expectations shaped by his bourgeois background in general and his father in particular. The bitterness occasioned between father and son is but intimated in an entry Degas's niece made at the time in her notebooks. "With great sadness," she noted, "but with no less nobility, Degas left his father's house to live in an attic."
The self-portrait reproduced here is a record of that choice. For him, the face itself is the territory on which the decision was fought. It is as if Degas has pushed through the shadows of his father's study and waits quietly to tell him what he has decided, what will irrevocably split them into two grown men no longer able to fumble for the ease, the protection, of those two words: father and son.
It is this that Degas has captured. In the silence of his face, we hear his father's judgment. The words, unrecorded by the father, are forever frozen in the face of the son. And it is this that empowers this portrait. It is by far the profoundest of Degas's numerous self-portraits; it may be his most powerful.
To understand its significance, the dimension of its human gain, we only have to contrast it to the Louvre self-portrait done a year earlier. Burdened by facile phrasing, an empty virtousity of form, Degas has drawn himself with the cold hauteurm of Ingres. His face is saturated with the sullen boredom of an unhappy clerk.
Equally revealing, in the portrait here, we find none of the psychological sting that coils beneath the surface charm of Degas's later work. There is little indication of the paradoxical personality who later emerges: the misogynist who so lovingly detailed women; the city dweller whose countryscapes startled with their luminosity of light and landscape.
What we have before us here is a self-portrait in the great tradition of Renaissance portraiture, in which subject and style are perfectly integrated. We sense the supple inner realism of Raphael, the haunting humanity of Rembrandt.
Beyond the dialogue between father and son, son and self, this is a portrait of active understanding. It is a face that, however momentarily, knows itself. A face that claims what its owner later observed in his notebook: "The heart is an instrument which rusts if it is not put to work."