Tracing the Passionate Struggles of Edgar Degas

On most days in the late 1880s, a slightly stooping, middle-aged Edgar Degas would shut himself up in his Paris atelier, his self-described "fortified enceinte (enclosed space)."

Strangers were ignored. Even old friends, after ringing the bell downstairs, were often subjected to a long wait "while a concealed, suspicious Degas peered down from a sort of medieval turret flanking the studio and decided whether he wanted to interrupt his work," biographer Roy McMullen writes in "Degas: His Life, Times, and Work."

After dusk Degas often ventured into the streets and salons of Paris, mainly with a small circle of artists and patrons. Yet unlike contemporaries such as Claude Monet, Degas shunned the public spotlight and declined to explain his work to journalists. Reacting violently to intrusions by critics, the curmudgeonly bachelor once all but denied his occupation:

"Is painting done to be looked at? Do you understand me? One works for two or three friends who are alive and for others who are dead or unknown," Degas exploded. "Painting concerns one's private life."

The fruits of Degas's intensely private later decades, works that in his time were little-known and, later, frequently misunderstood, are thoughtfully laid bare in a fascinating exhibition (through Jan. 5) at the Art Institute of Chicago.

"Degas: Beyond Impressionism," the first show devoted exclusively to the artist's mature work, opened Sept. 30 to capacity audiences in Chicago, its sole US venue.

The show is a collaborative effort of the Art Institute, home to the world's third-largest Degas collection, and the National Gallery of Art, London, where it enjoyed a critically acclaimed run this summer.

A rich array of more than 90 paintings, pastels, drawings and sculptures gathered from collections in Europe, Japan, and the United States, the exhibition briefly traces earlier periods before keenly focusing on the artist's much-overlooked work of the 1890s and 1900s.

The central theme is Degas's metamorphosis from an insightful and ironic young commentator on Parisian social life to a withdrawn and introspective man whose works deeply evoke his own passionate struggle to make art.

Narrative beginnings

In his earlier career, overviewed in a segment of the exhibit titled "The 'Excellent Painter': 1855-1886," Degas shows himself an incisive storyteller, narrating lively scenes of cafe singers and dancers with realistic detail and extraordinary vitality.

So sharp are his observations that "in many of the pictures you can almost hear the music, the squeak of the ballet dancers' shoes on the stage of the Paris Opera," notes Douglas Druick, the Art Institute's curator of European painting.

But in the 1880s, Degas suffers from bouts of depression and aimlessness. "I'm blocked, impotent. I've lost the thread," he wrote in a letter in 1884. The turmoil of midlife leads Degas to redefine the goal of his art away from the narrative and toward a deeply reflective expressionism - toward art for art's sake, rather than as a window on the world.

Despite a superficial continuity in subject matter, the transformation is pivotal. Earlier descriptive detail gives way to an emphasis on the essentials of powerful lines and sensuous color. Individual facial features and costume details of ballet dancers disappear, for example, replaced by roughly outlined figures blotched with green, gray, or orange.

At the same time, the settings change. Instead of depictions of public performances and bows, Degas focuses on the rehearsal. The dancers are older and heavier, their bodies weary, their heads resting on their arms or hands.

Indeed, Degas's later works appear much like endless rehearsals in a labored quest for perfection. Over and over again, with an obsessive single-mindedness, he sketches the same figures on tracing paper using the much narrower media of charcoal and pastel.

"Frieze of Dancers" (1893-98), for example, is derived from countless drawings, pastels, and studies from previous decades. It reveals the frustrating repetition and self-correction demanded by the artist's unique creative process. "[I am] working like a galley slave," Degas informed his dealer when in his 70s.

Close range of subjects

Degas's narrow preoccupation with a few themes - in his last two decades he made hundreds of pastels of women dancing, bathing, and combing their hair - is vividly illustrated by a few series of his pictures at the Art Institute. Through these deceivingly simple figures, stripped to their bare essentials, Degas displays a complex range of emotion as well as a consuming devotion to art that his isolated existence otherwise kept hidden from public view.

"Degas goes back to his studio, closes the door, and in this self-contained universe that allows him to make art from the art he has already made, he is free to ... address humankind," says Mr. Druick.

While the paintings include melancholy landscapes of the French coast as well as a few unconvincing scenes of joyous Russian dancers, Degas's breadth of feeling is best represented in his portrayals of women grooming.

The placidly thoughtful "Woman Combing Her Hair," an oil painting in cool shades of green, for example, contrasts strikingly with the fiery red sensuality evoked by works such as "Combing the Hair" and "After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself."

In all, this ground-breaking exhibition makes a convincing case that Degas's later art, though sometimes awkward and belabored, equals that of his earlier career in interest and integrity.

According to his contemporary Pierre Auguste Renoir, "if Degas had died at 50, he would have been remembered as an excellent painter, no more; it is after his 50th year that ... he really becomes Degas."

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