A model critic and a model, too

A critic might not be thought the most promising subject for an artist to draw or paint. But this Edgar Degas portrait of Louis-Emile-Edmond-Duranty, who was indeed a critic and novelist, is a perceptive presentation of a man's character and environment. It is also so compellingly a study and evocation of concentrated thought that it persuades the viewer that this critic, at least, could hardly be more interesting.

Duranty wrote favorably about the Impressionists, particularly about Degas himself. When Degas made his portrait, the two men had known each other for 14 years. So this was an image based on familiarity. Degas had a remarkable ability to pick up on a telling gesture or mannerism, and a disposition of his subject's body, that seem not only "typical" but destined to be an indelible commemorative image. A portrait of a 19th-century French critic is thus invested with iconhood no less effectively than Holbein's image of Henry VIII or a Rembrandt portrait of himself.

So strong is Degas's image of "Duranty" that it is hard to imagine the critic's appearance in any other way. Yet Degas did another version, a small pastel, and it is subtly different. A mug-shot photograph of Duranty also exists that could almost be someone else. Physical likeness, however, is not the main concern of real portraiture. Another novelist and critic of the time, Joris-Karl Huysmans, found the painting convincing. He wrote that Duranty's "slender, nervous fingers, his keen and mocking eye, his searching, piercing look ... and his dry little laugh ... pass before me again as I look on this canvas where the character of this curious analyst is so well rendered."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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