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Degas the Collector: the obsessive unmercenary

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France was convulsed with the war. Therefore, national museums received very little money to try to buy the enviable masterpieces from the private collection of Edgar Degas into the museum exposition. When the artist died in 1917, they had to organize three auctions to sell more than 2,000 collected paintings, drawings and watercolors. Nevertheless, people visited the sales even in the midst of the exhausting war, even without a penny in their pockets, just for seeing them. Before that, only a few of the closest Degas`s friends and art dealers could see the collection, and even then not completely.

Edgar Degas next to the Crying Girl sculpture by Albert Bartholomé, 1895. Photo: www. musee-orsay.fr

The Pantheon of Degas

Once a Parisian publisher of an album of lithographs asked Edgar Degas to take a photo of one of the works by Delacroix for him, which was exactly in the private collection of the artist by that time. Degas replied, "I have been hunting for my Delacroix for 20 years. Let others do the same."
Real Degas’s hunting began from the 1890s, when his own paintings were sold and brought sufficient profit. At that time, Edgar Degas was known as a brilliant wit, a solitary aristocrat, a patron of young artists who did not take apprentices nonetheless. He almost achieved his personal ideal formula of fame, "to be famous and unknown". He rented a three-storey apartment with his workshop and bedroom occupying a single floor, the upper one. The two lower floors were living rooms and galleries with cabinets, drawers, and glass caps covering the most fragile exhibits.
Paul Mathey. Edgar Degas. 1882.
On some good days, Degas let some of his friends, artists and journalists come to his place. One of them, Arsène Alexandre, wrote after such a visit, "Degas is possessed by a daemon of collecting, which is rare even among artists. His collection is closed, protected and I would not recommend you to ring his doorbell, if you do not have an unknown work by some Ingres with you."
If the whole collection of Edgar Degas could be left in one museum, rather than sold around the world, then the collection of the works by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Eugene Delacroix would be a special highlight of this museum. They would take several rooms: 20 paintings and 88 drawings by Ingres, 13 paintings and more than two hundred drawings and watercolors by Delacroix.
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Portrait of Madame LeBlanc
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Jacques-Louis LeBlanc
  • Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Portrait of Madame Leblanc. 1823
  • Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Jacques-Louis Leblanc. 1823
Degas bought the portraits of Monsieur and Madame Leblanc in 1896 in the hotel Drouot for 11550 francs, 42 years after he saw them for the first time. The artist considered them the gem of his collection and left a detailed record of the purchase and all associated memories. "I remember seeing these portraits for the first time in 1854 in the house of M. Leblanc, their son, at the street de la Ville Estrapade, in a house with a metal fence and a gray facade … Young Monsieur Leblanc was a teacher assistant at the Higher Polytechnic School. I saw these portraits again in 1855, at the World Exhibition, on Montaigne Avenue." Then comes the detailed information about the state of the painting, the fate of relatives, the accompanying drawings and sketches.
The Classicist Ingres and the Romanticist Delacroix, who were irreconcilable opponents in their lifetime, shared the role of the supreme deity in the personal art pantheon of Degas. Ingres’s exact, impeccable manner of drawing and Delacroix’s passionate, dynamic composition became the basis of Degas’s skill. When the diaries of Delacroix were published in 1893, Degas was already almost blind. He asked his housekeeper to read them out loud every evening. When some of his familiar art dealers had a drawing by Ingres, Degas was the first to know it. He hunted for certain paintings and sketches, and did not hesitate to buy some unexpected finds, which he accidentally discovered in an art shop.
Eugene Delacroix. Louis-Auguste Sweater
Eugene Delacroix. Bedroom count de mornas
  • Eugene Delacroix. Louis-Auguste Schwiter. 1830
  • Eugene Delacroix. Apartment of comte de Mornay. 1832
Degas considered the portrait of Louis-Auguste Schwiter a model of romantic portrait. He valued it and the "Apartment of comte de Mornay" more than other works by Delacroix he owned.
In his mature age, Degas was a bachelor and almost a recluse. He spent his days in truly fascinating pleasures: opera, work and hunting for masterpieces. Most often, he visited galleries of art dealers and prowled through small shops with his friends Henri Rouart, Albert Bartholomé and Edmond Duranty, who also were enthusiastic collectors. He always participated in art auctions in the hotel Drouot, mostly incognito. "Degas continues in the same manner, he buys on and on. Every evening he asks himself the same question: how to pay for everything he bought that day. And in the morning it begins anew: more Ingres, two Delacroix and one El Greco in a week. And then he proudly declares that he cannot afford new clothes," the sculptor Albert Bartholomé said in his letter to a friend of his and Degas.
Ambroise Vollard asserts in his memoirs that Degas’s own financial success did not please him. "They began selling my things at such prices, let alone Ingres and Delacroix. I will not be able to buy them anymore," he complained, and he always called his paintings "things", as if depriving them of their deserved status compared to the canvases of his idols.

Degas as a gifted curator

Edgar Degas collected not only paintings, but also everything connected with them: he was an art historian, art critic and curator of his home exposition. He bought the sales catalogues and documents of the paintings in his collection. He carefully researched the provenance, described the person who sold the artwork. A particular pleasure was to get a picture previously owned by another artist. In his notebook, he wrote about the "Saint Ildefonso" by El Greco, "This picture hung over Millet’s bed for a long time."
Domenico Theotokopoulos (El Greco). Saint Ildefons
Domenico Theotokopoulos (El Greco). Prayer Of St. Dominic
  • El Greco. Saint Ildefonso
  • El Greco. St. Dominic praying
He meticulously gathered any information about the pictures, even the minutest data. The records of Degas` scientific reports are boring to death for a simple art lover, but they are real treasures for modern auctioneers and researchers, as it greatly facilitates their work. This one received by rail from the nephew of Mrs. X for such a price. This one is from the hands of the woman who modelled Ingres for his "The Apotheosis of Homer", I was quite young then, and she was an old woman, she was selling brushes, but she could still resemble an Ingres’s heroine. And there are hundreds of such valuable records.
Degas commanded the services of the only restorer, the only one he trusted. The artist felt indignant at Louvre artisans; he was infuriated at the restoration of the "Pilgrims at Emmaus" by Rembrandt, which actually destroyed the picture. His own restoration mistakes drove him to despair. He had too much varnish removed from "Roger Freeing Angelica" painting by Ingres — anyone except himself and focused specialists could hardly estimate the damage caused to the painting, though Degas referred it as a "too grave mistake".
He had an intrinsic passion, almost a physical need to possess some works, a scientific approach to describing his collection; one might think, Degas was as talented and shrewd gallery owner as an artist. Oddly enough, but he did not care about the historical justice and expediency, about the variety of the collection at all. All his life he collected only the paintings that soothed his itch of research, delighted, taught, and caused an uncontrollable thirst for possession. Regardless of the author’s name or personal relationship. The Degas’s collection is a very subjective sample of a man with an exceptional taste, an artist.

Contemporaries of Degas in his collection

Edgar Degas received most of the pictures by his contemporaries from them as a gift or in exchange for his pictures immediately after the closure of another impressionist exhibition. He was an ideologist and one of the founders of the "Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers", an association of young artists later called impressionists. At the late exhibitions, he brought of his countless protégés, and this fact provoked fierce resistance of the old participants. Monet, Pissarro, Caillebotte, Renoir were indignant at their neighbourhood to young upstarts from the Degas circle, and refused to participate in exhibitions, sent violent letters to each other and quarrelled. They would be very surprised not to find a single picture by Raffaelli or Zandomenegi, who were Degas’s main protégés, in his collection.
By the way, it did not contain pictures by Monet, not even one. Perhaps, because Degas hated the open-air and all this nonsense with waft caused by light. He also did not have much Renoir, just two portraits: the "Lady in Black", which is now in the Hermitage, and the "Portrait de Madame Henriot", later taken to a private collection. At the same time, he had 21 paintings by Pissarro and a lot of paintings, drawings and engravings by Mary Cassatt.
Mary Cassatt. Hair girl
Mary Cassatt. Maternal tenderness
  • Mary Cassatt. Girl Arranging Her Hair
  • Mary Cassatt. Maternal tenderness
Mary Cassatt. Lydia's mother for tea
Mary Cassatt. In the box
  • Mary Cassatt. Lydia and Her Mother at Tea
  • Mary Cassatt. In the Loge
There were 59 works by Mary Cassatt in Degas’s personal collection. When the artist first saw her picture, still knowing nothing about the young American paintress, he said, "There is a person in the world who thinks like I do". Soon they met and remained friends for the rest of Degas’s life. In fact, Cassatt has been the only real student of Degas — she recalled his comments, advice, and told a story about Edgar personally correcting her picture.
Immediately after the 8th impressionist exhibition in 1886, they exchanged pictures: Cassatt received one pastel from the series with bathing women, and Degas got the painting "Girl Arranging Her Hair".
Friendship and personal affection never obliged Degas to admire the art of some artist, and vice versa. He hardly ever talked with Paul Cezanne; he was far from the errant Provencal in both character, and social habits. Too little common had they also in artistic pursuits. Nevertheless, it did not stop Degas from buying up Cezanne’s paintings from Ambroise Vollard, forasmuch as he perfectly understood that the still life by unrecognized Cezanne, which is hardly sold for 150 francs, is as valuable as the canvas by Delacroix sold for 12,000 francs.
He buys paintings from the Tahitian series by Paul Gauguin from the artist himself or from the same Vollard.
Paul Gauguin. The day of God
The day of God
1894, 66×87 cm
The final collection of Degas, which was sold after his death, turned out to contain 10 portraits, still lifes and sketches by Cezanne and 25 works by Gauguin in different techniques, including the Gauguin’s copy of Olympia by Manet.
Paul Gauguin. Bathers
Bathers
1897, 60.4×93.4 cm
All these works hung together, contemporaries along with classics, sketches with huge canvases and engravings on two gallery floors. Only one contemporary was allowed to settle confidently in the bedroom of Degas, it was Edouard Manet. The first thing Degas was looking at when he woke up every day, was "The Battle of Nancy" sketch
A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
and several watercolors by Delacroix, the drawing of Odysseus’s figure from "The Apotheosis of Homer" by Ingres and "The Ham" by Edouard Manet.
Young Degas and already scandalous Manet met in the Louvre. Degas copied a picture by Velazquez, and Manet praised the copy. Manet was a god, the authority and the teacher of the whole generation of impressionists, although he was not much older than the rest. Contemplating his "Olympia" and "Breakfast on the grass" helped each of them understand what to paint, and how to paint. The collection of Degas had a weighty stack of engravings (as many as four copies of "Olympia", an author’s parody among them, and three versions of "Lola from Valencia"), drawings, portraits of Berthe Morisot, some sketches for posters and animalistic studies (cats, ravens), profiles of strangers made in two pencil strokes, works in pastel and ink.
Once, after the death of Manet, Degas got a piece of canvas, which was obviously cut off from a whole canvas. Edouard Manet’s son cut the canvas into several parts after his father’s death, hopeful of selling it quickly and profitably. Having obtained his legless sergeant, Degas pestered Durand-Ruel, requesting him to "find the sergeant’s legs". Then, when some parts are gathered, he would ask to find "the head of Maximilian". "He cut the picture as if it belonged to him. You think you know your relatives," Degas lamented, lingeringly collecting individual parts and pasting them on a blank canvas. The picture collected by Edgar Degas is now in the permanent exposition of the London National Gallery in this form.

Not for laughs

In one of the rooms in the Edgar Degas’s house, there always was a pile of fresh newspaper clippings — the most ridiculous, the most topical cartoons. They often lampooned those same artists who painted parodies of impressionists themselves. Cynical and witty Degas collected an entire anthology of the drawn satire of the 19th century: hundreds of engravings by Honoré Daumier, Paul Gavarni, Charles Keane and modern cartoonists.
Illustrations below:
Paul Gavarni. Discussion of Budget. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Paul Gavarni. Une de ces mines pudibones. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Paul Gavarni. Le Carnavale. Cleveland Museum of Art.
Cartoons fascinated Degas not only with their keen eye for life situations and characters, but also with their drawing accuracy. Degas said to Henri Rouart, his friend and another passionate lover of satire, that it’s amazing how much emotive expressiveness is achieved with just a few drawn lines.

An old score

In 1917, when Degas died, three galleries announced the sale of his collection: those of Durand-Ruel, Bernheim-Jeune and Ambroise Vollard. Étienne Moreau-Nélaton, a friend of Degas, assisted Durand-Ruel with the analysis and sorting of works. After visiting him before the first auction, he left a record in his personal diary, "The collection occupies three rooms. Masterpieces are simply piled up in a heap, an incredible huddle of treasures. Ingres, Delacroix, Degas — nothing is sorted or classified yet. Drawings and watercolors by Delacroix, which I had time to see, are magnificent."
Skeptic Degas joked one day during a conversation about two most important paintings in his collection, as it appeared to him, namely portraits of Monsieur and Madame Leblanc, "I want to give them to my country. And then I’ll sit in front of them and I’ll think what a noble act I’ve done." Today both of these portraits are in the Metropolitan Museum.
Most of the exhibits were carried away from France to the private collections and museums of America, England, Russia. The Louvre only bought two pictures. To make a comprehensive impression of the complete collection of Degas is now available by means of the exhaustive catalogue published by the New York Metropolitan Museum. This catalogue is a titanic work of researchers who studied the personal records of the artist, working papers of Durand-Ruel and other galleries, museum and auction stories. Thus, Metropolitan and Degas seem to be quits now.
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