Saturday, September 30, 2017

Degas: 'A Passion for Perfection'

Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 
3 October 2017 – 14 January 2018 

Denver Art Museum 
February 11, 2018 – May 20, 2018

In the centenary year of the artist’s death, the Fitzwilliam Museum will stage a major exhibit ion of its wide -ranging holdings of works by Edgar Degas (1834 -1917), the most extensive and representative in the UK. The Museum’s collections will be complemented by an outstanding group of over fifty loans from private and public collections throughout Europe and the United States, several of which will be on public display for the first time. These include a group of paintings and drawings once belonging to the economist John Maynard Keynes, bought directly in 1918 and 1919 from Degas's posthumous studio sales in Paris, against a backdrop of German bombardment during World War I. 

Degas, Dancers in the wings, c.1900-1905

  •  Edgar Degas , Dancers in the wings , c .1900– 1905 © The Fitzwilliam Museum , Cambridge 

  • Edgar Degas, Dance Examination , 1880, Denver Art Museum 

The remarkable breadth of works on display will include paintings, sculpture, drawings, pastels, etchings, monotypes, counterproofs and letters – some business -like, some heart - rending – written by Degas to friends and associates. Prominent in the exhibition will be Degas’s work in three dimensions: posthumous bronze casts of dancers, horses and nudes, but also exceptionally rare lifetime sculptures in plaster and wax. 

Dancer (Arabesque Over the Right Leg, Left Arm in Front), sculpture made by Edgar Degas

  • Edgar Degas, Arabesque over the Right Leg, Left Arm in Front, First Study , c.1882 –95 © The Fitzwilliam Museum , Cambridge 

The exhibition will show that Degas’s relentless experimentation with technical procedures was a defining characteristic of his art. Abhorring complacency, Degas habitually revisited and reworked compositions and even individual poses, as if to mine the infinite possibilities of a given subject. 

‘It is essential to do the same subject over again, ten times, one hundred times,’ Degas believed,  ‘nothing should be left to chance’. Was he driven by ‘a passion for perfection’, as one acquaintance claimed? Or can his resistance to closure be considered to be a marker of his modernity? Degas repeatedly acknowledged his debt to his artistic predecessors, insisting that ‘No art was ever less spontaneous than mine’. 

  • Edgar Degas-Woman Scratching her Back-Denver Art Museum: The Edward & Tullah Hanley Memorial Gift for the People of Denver and the area, 1973.161. 

  • Edgar Degas, Dancers, about 1900. Pastel and charcoal on tracing paper, mounted on wove paper, mounted on board; 37 5/8 x 26 ¾ in.

The exhibition will open with a selection of works that highlight Degas’s reverence for classical antiquity and the Old Masters, as well as for painters and sculptors of his own century. A range of works by some of the artists Degas most admired, from 15th -century Florentine draughtsmen to Eugène Delacroix, Camille Corot and his artistic idol, Jean -Auguste - Dominique Ingres, will feature in the display, along with a number of beautiful and highly sensitive copies made by Degas from antique and  Renaissance paintings and sculpture. 

The exhibition will focus on the most prominent and recurring themes throughout Degas’ 60-year career. These include his interest in learning from the art of the past and from that of his contemporaries, a lifelong fascination with the nude, a passion for horses, and his strong interest in opera and dance. 

Well-known masterpieces will be on view, and the exhibition also will dive deeper into Degas’ obsession with repetition of subjects throughout his entire artistic journey. Visitors will see his transformation from a portraitist and painter of historical subjects to one interested in the contemporary life of late-nineteenth-century Paris. By experimenting constantly throughout his career he developed techniques that allowed him to capture modern subject matter through sharp and precise lighting, such as café concerts, street scenes with new electric lighting, sporting events, and theatrical settings. He considered his work in all media a constant continuum.

The DAM is the sole American venue for the exhibition. Degas: A Passion for Perfection is presented and organized in association with the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge, England, whose Degas holdings represent the most extensive in the United Kingdom across the various media in which Degas worked. The exhibition is organized by Jane Munro, Keeper of Paintings, Drawings and Prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum, and curated locally by Timothy J. Standring, Gates Family Foundation Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the DAM.

As a counterbalance and fitting homage in the centennial year, the exhibition will conclude with a fascinating overview of 20 th- and 21st -century artists such as Walter Sickert, Picasso, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, R.B. Kitaj, Lucian Freud, Howard Hodgkin and Ryan Gander, wh o drew on Degas as he did from past artists, studying and learning from his example while ‘doing something different’. 


Essays by leading Degas scholars and conservation scientists explore his practice and recurring themes of the human figure and landscape. The book opens with a study of Degas’s debt to the Old Masters, and it concludes with a consideration of his artistic legacy and his influence on leading artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, including Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, Ryan Gander, David Hockney, Howard Hodgkin, R. B. Kitaj, Pablo Picasso, and Walter Sickert.

A small contemporaneous exhibition:

Degas, Caricature and Modernity
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 

  •  Honoré-Victorin Daumier (1808-1879), I’m not going down there anymore!, from the series The Bathers, 1839. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Edgar Degas’s (1834-1917) sense of humour is being explored through an exhibition looking at three caricaturists and satirists whose work he collected in large numbers: Honoré Daumier (1808-79), Paul Gavarni (1804-66) and Charles Keene (1823-91).

The exhibition Degas, Caricature and Modernity provides a new perspective on Degas as a great artist. It shows how Degas sought inspiration in what was seen as the lowliest art forms, and his ‘rollicking and somewhat bear-like sense of fun’ as described by his friend Walter Sickert (1860-1942). It is part of a season of events at the Fitzwilliam celebrating the art and times of Degas that marks the centenary of the artist’s death, each supporting the major loan exhibition Degas: a passion for perfection.

Jane Munro, Keeper of Paintings, Drawings and Prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum commented: “There is a modernity to these caricatures, a real sense of the Paris Degas knew, the Paris of his day. He was a keen observer of people, including the peculiarity of modern city life. Friends and acquaintances relished his banter, anecdotes and piercing mimicry, even if they were sometimes subjected to the lashing of what Degas himself called his ‘wicked tongue’. In this centennial year of the artist’s death we wanted to inject a note of animation and to show a facet of his character that is perhaps less widely appreciated: his humour and keen appreciation of the absurdity of human existence.”

Satirical prints were highly popular in Europe at the end of the 19th century and were printed in great numbers. Those selected for the exhibition are by artists whose work Degas was known to enjoy and collect. Their everyday subjects captured a vivid impression of life at the time, referred to by the writer Charles Baudelaire as ‘the epic and heroic quality of modern life’, which tallied with Degas and his contemporaries in their interest in modernity.

The three artists featured all drew inspiration from observing and poking fun at the characters and customs of modern life as they knew it: Daumier lampooning the government, the professions and the French bourgeoisie; Gavarni creating comic characters from the people he saw in the city of Paris; and Punch contributor Keene creating social satire of lower and middle class life in England.

This exhibition is showing in conjunction with major loan exhibition Degas: a passion for perfection (3 October 2017 - 14 January 2018)