Now at the Yale University Art Gallery, a small exhibit called “Edgar Degas: Defining the Modernist Edge,” is a short but surprisingly complete look at the life of a great artist.
Located in a small area of the first floor, the exhibit is composed of about 20 examples of Degas’ work owned by the gallery. Despite its small size, the exhibit masterfully displays a wide variety of Degas’ various styles and mediums.
Oftentimes, exhibits of Degas’ work will show only a sampling of a certain main theme, such as bathers, or his famous dancers. However, in “Defining the Modernist Edge,” the entirety of Degas’ life’s work is represented with examples of every medium he ever used, including wax sculpture, painting and counterproof, a method of printmaking that involves running a print through a press against another sheet before the ink on the original print is dried, to allow the artist to make corrections.
But in addition to these more obscure works, the exhibit includes examples of his great themes. Famous subjects such as ballet dancers, bathers, and horse races are amply if concisely represented by a few choice pieces.
The exhibit also displays a number of rare treasures. Among the most recent acquisitions on display is one of Degas’ extremely rare wax figures, “Dancer Ready to Dance, With Right Foot Forward.” Paul Mellon bequeathed the piece in 2000 as the last addition to the gallery’s now-complete range of Degas’ various media.
The exhibit begins with Degas’ very early work when he was doing copies of works at the Louvre in Paris. Like many other artists at the time, his studying and copying of masterworks was considered a respectable method of self-instruction. These early works done in fine pencil lines and with little color contrast display the beginning of the development of Degas’ distinctive style.
One piece in particular, simply called “Self-Portrait,” is particularly interesting, as it is a copy of Degas’ only self-portrait done in any print medium. Degas created it in 1857 at age 23, and it gives some insight into how he viewed himself at the time. Shown in a hat that casts a shadow, the eyes take on the distinguished look of an observer of the world.
The sculptures of figures in motion show a variety of Degas’ famously candid, naturalistic interpretations of the human form. The sculptures range from a ballet dancer in an extremely elegant, but somewhat plastic pose, to a perhaps more realistically depicted woman, in an awkward preparatory stretching position, complete with all the lumps and bulges associated with such a movement.
Also included in the exhibit are examples of Degas’ landscapes as well as further studies of the human form.
The exhibit, although highly enjoyable, is not a particularly uplifting view of the world. The works are often beautiful yet with a hint of despair. In some of the paintings, ballet dancers seem exhausted or perhaps uninterested in their rehearsal, and couples who should be deep in conversation look despondently and somewhat longingly into the distance, and not at one another.
The range extends from the lovely, to pieces that are unsympathetic in their realistic portrayals of form.
However small, “Defining the Modernist Edge,” is well worth a trip. On a cold, busy day, it is a quick but complete snapshot of an artist’s work, that is very appropriate for a cold, often forlorn winter.