As ''Edgar Degas: The Painter as Printmaker'' makes abundantly clear, Degas was not only a painter and a superb colorist. He was also a prodigious creator of prints who considered black and white his ''passion.'' At last that passion can be seen in this major traveling exhibition, now at the Museum of Fine Arts, which presents about 225 impressions from some 70 of Degas's etchings and lithographs.
Secretive and aloof, Degas confined knowledge of his printmaking activity to his intimate circle, and few editions were published in his lifetime. Four hundred impressions, discovered posthumously, were dispersed into collections throughout Europe and America. Thus, the current exhibit makes public for the first time Degas's extensive graphic endeavors, until recently inaccessible.
And an extraordinary body of work it is, for although Degas's printmaking was sporadic, it touched on every major aspect of his artistic career. There are early linear portraits that show Degas under the spell of Rembrandt and Ingres. They are precise, specific, and masterly in their psychological penetration. There is the mature Degas, drawn to themes of urban life expressed particularly through images of women - both the working-class actress and the sophisticated museum visitor. Finally, there are the bold, gestural, and impersonal female bathers, which preoccupied Degas from the late 1880s onward.
Although the bathers seem filled with a powerful, charged spontaneity, Degas wrote, ''Nothing in art must seem to be by chance, not even movement.'' Above all, the exhibit presents a portrait of Degas as a restless experimenter, combining media and reworking - sometimes through as many as 20 states - toward a finish he could never quite attain.
While Degas's technical innovations may wow us, they should not be allowed to eclipse the primacy of the images themselves. His relentless tinkerings were, after all, in the service of enhancing - through nuance - such marvelous visions as Mary Cassatt and her sister at the Louvre, one woman being all caricatured expectation, the other a study in leisurely observation. The cafe-concert scenes glow with nocturnal illumination; the female bather's fluid gestures, so fully comprehended, are breathtaking. Throughout, there is Degas's love affair with light, his unforgettable draftsmanship, and the constant evidence of a lucid, exploratory mind. Through Jan. 13.