Edgar Degas

Making Others See by Jeannine Cook

Every artist knows the excitement of seeing something, discovering something or thinking of something that can then be translated into a work of art. The greater the excitement, the more impassioned the work and frequently, the better the results. Yet those results are then out in the wide world for each viewer to interpret and understand. And the path to achieving memorable art for viewers can be long and arduous.

Edgar Degas remarked, "Art is not what you see, but what you make others see." This wise and oh so experienced artist knew that that transformative alchemy needs somehow to come into play amidst the excitement of creation. His skill and innovative methods in choice of composition - often daring indeed for the time with their nod to Japanese woodcuts - allowed him to direct the viewer's gaze in almost unconscious fashion. He also commented, "No art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and of the study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament I know nothing." As he grew older, he would work and rework compositions, trying out parts and juxtaposing them in different fashion, seeking to express movement, psychological impact, social distinctions, but always mindful of what he wished the viewer to appreciate. Chance was not in his methodology of art making.

Woman Bathing , 1886 pastel, E. Degas (image courtesy of the Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington, CT).

Woman Bathing, 1886 pastel, E. Degas (image courtesy of the Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington, CT).

Dancers at the Barre , c. 1888 oil painting, E. Degas, (Image courtesy of the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.)

Dancers at the Barre, c. 1888 oil painting, E. Degas, (Image courtesy of the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.)

Look at these two works with their bold, unusual compositions. In each case, Degas is playing with the viewer, directing the eye like an orchestra director conducts the musicians. If you pull the works apart and analyse each one, there are all sorts of odd shapes of limbs, strange angles of bodies, tipped lines. He is using almost hieroglyphic forms to convey what he wants us to see.

Some of the influence in later works is also photography, a medium that Degas embraced from the 1870s onwards. The camera's eye allows even more radical cropping and organisation of space than did the Japanese woodcut tradition, and Degas used these possibilities to full advantage, often in multi-layered compositions.

Part of his way of creating art, especially as he grew older, was to rely on his memory or on the small working sculptures he created of ballerinas, refining and refining the marks and gestures, in the same way that ballet dancers practise and practise movements. I read that he once said that were he to set up an art school, he would house it all under one roof, a building with six floors. On the top floor, he would put the novices to start drawing from the model. As the students progressed, he would move them downstairs, floor by floor. When they were at their most proficient, they would be on the ground floor, and that meant that in order to see the original model, they would actually have to clamber back up the stairs to the sixth floor. By this, he implied that memory is critical to an artist. Until you have practised, practised and re-practised until your art-making has become indelibly part of your inner being, you cannot then devote your attention to organising your artwork in seeming spontaneity but in very purposeful fashion for the maximum effect on viewers.

There are, coincidentally, a number of interesting exhibitions currently on display about Edgar Degas and different aspects of his artistic endeavours. Perhaps the most unusual sounds to be that of Degas and the Nude, at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. At the Phillips Collection, there is Dancers at the Barre: Point and Counterpoint, while at the Royal Academy, London, Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement. Lucky viewers can savour of being skilfully "made to see" what Degas wanted them to see.