Taking line drawing seriously

An exhibition in Baltimore explores the line drawings by Degas and other French artists.

"The Essence of Line: French Drawings from Ingres to Degas" is an exhibition staged (until Sept. 11) at two museums in Baltimore - the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art. The works are selected from the collections of both institutions. The exhibition has as its bookends two artists for whom drawing was the bedrock of art. The two also met briefly. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was nearing the end of his illustrious career; Edgar Degas was just starting. Ingres is quoted as advising him: "Draw lines, young man, draw lines from nature and memory."

Degas took Ingres - and lines - very seriously. For him, lines signified nicety, exactitude, and also a strong, energetic means of expressive movement. Some of his drawings come very close to Ingres's in their controlled sensitivity and accuracy. Ingres's drawings, particularly his scrupulous pencil portraits, have a classical clarity and seem utterly convincing as records of a person's appearance and character. They are so precise that one artist today (David Hockney) is positive Ingres used an optical device called a camera obscura.

Ingres's work in the Baltimore exhibition illustrates what he meant when he said, "Drawing is the probity of art.... Drawing contains everything, except the hue." It was this conviction that color was virtually a last-minute adornment that made Ingres seem at complete odds with his contemporary, Delacroix (also represented in this exhibition). For Delacroix, color was the building block of painting.

Degas, particularly in his later paintings of dancers, often seems at first sight closer to the romantic, freely expressive Delacroix than to the proper and meticulous finisher, Ingres. Degas's dancers are rich in color and light, and in his preparatory drawings for them, he sometimes introduced color as well as line. Their tutus, for example, may be quickly colored with pastel. Yet, as with ballet itself, line still remains paramount.

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