From eye to brush: keen observations

Edgar Degas had the marvelous ability to make even the most complex and difficult feats of drawing look easy. He was, in fact, so natural and magnificent a draftsman that even his slightest sketches captured and conveyed everything we need to know about his subjects, be they ballet dancers, racehorses, musicians at work, or women combing their hair.

From his early Ingres-like academic studies of classical nudes executed in a precise linear style, to his rough and loosely sketched late pastels, Degas remained first and foremost a draftsman. In fact he was one of the world's greatest - the master whom all respected, and whose good opinion of their work was most desired by the likes of Lautrec, Van Gogh, and Gauguin.

Surprisingly enough (for all who draw well do not necessarily paint well), he was also a past master of the brush, paint, and color. His oils do not have that harsh and dry quality so often associated with great draftsmen who also painted, such as Durer and Ingres. In fact, as the years wore on, Degas's painting and drawing styles tended to fuse, something that is particularly evident in his late oils and pastels of ballet dancers and ladies at their baths.

His remarkable genius as a painter/draftsman manifested itself most dramatically in his studies of movement. He was one of the few great artists who would probably have been able to fulfill the old adage that a true draftsman is one who can see a man falling past his window, and draw in essential detail from just that one brief glimpse.

As a rule, however, the movements Degas portrayed were seldom that dramatic or extreme (that was more Lautrec's territory). He was much more interested in interrupting an action, in catching it in midair, so to speak - in portraying a dancer, for instance, as her arms froze momentarily above her head or were extended for a split second from her sides.

But if he enjoyed depicting individual movement, he reveled in creating groupings from the movements of two or more individuals. And he waxed pictorially eloquent when given the opportunity to fashion complex, interlocking compositions from the movements and activities of large groups of people or animals.

His race-track paintings, for instance, are marvels of dashing, prancing horses, jockeys riding primly (or hanging on for dear life), and dense, milling, colorful crowds - all so cleanly and clearly composed and executed that it is difficult to realize at first how beautifully organized and put together these works are.

The same is true of his various oils devoted to the ballet. In most of these we are taken backstage and can observe the dancers either from the rear or from the wings. In others, we sit in the orchestra pit and catch glimpses of both the dancers and some of the musicians. But there is another remarkable group of Degas ballet paintings in which we are permitted to watch the dancers in class and in rehearsal.

One of the loveliest but also one of the most deceptive of these is ''The Dancing Class,'' a smallish painting that appears to be simply a casual composition of a group of dancers taking a short break. In it, one dancer is trying out a step, the other dancers are either resting or watching, and an elderly musician, whose job it obviously is to accompany the dancers with music, is either tuning his instrument or is getting ready to play.

Degas's genius and all his art are well hidden within this composition - for what appears to our eyes to be an informal moment caught with almost photographic exactitude, is actually an extraordinary feat of creative imagination. The casualness and informality of the work belie the shrewd and calculating eye and mind that created it, for everything in it was carefully and cunningly planned to achieve just that casual effect.

''The Dancing Class'' is one of the great moments of creative distillation of the 19th century. Every individual in it is the crystallization of a particular movement, or of a particular human attitude. The composition itself is the carefully thought-out ''distillation'' of hundreds and possibly even thousands of such groupings and arrangements of figures that Degas had seen over the years in numerous dance classes.

The marvel of the painting is that none of this careful observation, shrewd planning, and exquisite technical skill calls attention to itself. What matters is what we see, not what went on ''behind the scenes'' in the artist's sensibilities. On the other hand, that artfulness, once understood, makes the ultimate enjoyment of this picture all the more subtle and delicious. How dead and uninteresting, for instance, would the upper right corner have been without that sliver of light coming through the slightly parted doors. Or how much weaker the design-movement of the four dancers on the right would have been if the far-right dancer were facing inward rather than as she is.

Consider also the importance of the slightly bent-forward dancer above the violin: her arms and shoulders create a gentle curve that leads our eyes upward from the man to the top of the mirror, and then downward toward the dancers at the extreme right. Or reflect on how lovely a touch it was to have the girl to the rear-right of the mirror lean backward. And, finally, consider how deathly dark the area around the man and the piano would be if Degas hadn't seen fit to enliven it with a dash of white in the form of a musical score casually tossed into the top hat.

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