How Degas synthesized etchings, print by print

Edgar Degas: The Painter as Printmaker, by Sue Welsh Reed and Barbara Stern Shapiro. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. A New York Graphic Society Book. 272 pp. $50. In his preface to ``Edgar Degas, Life and Work,'' Denys Sutton casts a cold eye on recent studies emphasizing the ``personal element'' of Degas's work, noting that psychological and Marxist influences on that kind of scholarship exaggerate the importance of Degas's subjects.

Sutton prefers a historical, specifically artistic criticism. Along with Roy Mullen's recent biography, Sutton singles out for praise the book-catalog by Sue Welsh Reed and Barbara Stern Shapiro, saying that ``his brilliance, originality and technical skill are now widely acknowledged, and have appealed to a public increasingly aware of the richness of this medium.''

In ``Edgar Degas: The Painter as Printmaker,'' 70 pages of front matter introduce Degas and printing. After that follows the ``catalog of Degas's prints,'' and to read through it carefully is an education in connoisseurship.

Take, for example, ``Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: the Paintings Gallery, 1879-80'' shown here. Forty-four impressions have been cataloged; Reed and Shapiro have examined 32. In their commentary, they note the influence of the Japanese woodcut in the ``pillar'' format. They also note that Degas borrowed two figures from another etching of Mary Cassatt. The etching involved Degas in four media; successive states show Degas using various tools and burnishing techniques.

Print by print, we witness Degas realizing what Sutton calls his art of ``synthesis.'' Because of the existence of many different printings, many beautifully reproduced in the book and described in detail, the authors can trace the evolution of an image through the stages that brought out different aspects of what Degas saw. The reader gradually becomes acclimatized to artistic changes, subtle or gross; and eventually convinced that Degas's genius was the kind that welcomed change and revision and endless toil, the kind for which the technical challenges that came with the development of a medium like etching proved a positive inspiration.

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