December 2006 Issue
Back to the Land
The Columbus Museum of Art spotlights the impressions of Edgar Degas.
Edgar Degas dared to be different. While fellow plein-air Impressionist painters, such as Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, took to the French countryside, applying paint to canvas for masterpieces including "Water Lilies" and "The Orchard" respectively, Degas opted to find inspiration in the urban landscape. He took in scenes along the boulevards and at the opera, ballet and racecourse, recording what he saw in mediums ranging from tinted wax, silk and human hair for "Little Dancer," to the ink on china paper monotype "The Jockey."
"...With a bowl of soup and three old brushes, you can make the finest landscape ever painted," the curmudgeonly Degas once said.
"Imagine the surprise of visitors to the opening of Degas' first one-man exhibition in 1892 to find that the walls were entirely hung with landscapes," says art historian Ann Dumas.
Dumas is guest-curating the Columbus Museum of Art's "Edgar Degas: The Last Landscapes," on exhibit through January 21. The show spotlights 24 works by the artist, including six paintings he created at the seaside resort of Saint-Valery-sur-Somme on the northern French coast between 1895 and 1898.
"The idea of Impressionism was about leaving the studio -- get your paints, go outside, set the easel up and paint what you actually see," explains Dominique Vasseur, the Columbus Museum of Art's associate curator of European art. "Degas, on the other hand, although he was part of the Impressionist generation, liked breaking with convention, always pushing the envelope. He's about transforming his initial experience, through his imagination and memory, into a new experience that we can participate in."
Which is why, Vasseur speculates, the vastness of the sea at Saint-Valery is represented by only a tiny sliver of blue -- or not at all as in "The Return of the Herd," one of the associate curator's favorites.
"There are no people, just cattle walking by, which I think is great," he says. "It's almost humorous, but at the same time, there's something very poetic and grounding about it."
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