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Calculated Spontaneity — the Paradox of Degas

By W. Victoria Lee

Degas at Harvard

Harvard University Art Museums —
Arthur M. Sackler Museum

485 Broadway, Cambridge, MA

Take #1 bus to Quincy St. stop and walk to Broadway

Mon.–Sat. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Sun. 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Thurs. special extended hour 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

General Admission: $ 7.50

College Student with Valid ID: $6.00

Saturday morning until noon: Free

One great thing about living in Boston is that there are many cultural venues within a 30-minute walk or accessible by public transportation. No matter which side of the River you live on, a concert or an exhibition of some sort is surely within reach. Summer is an especially busy season for museums and galleries. When many theaters, dance troupes, and orchestras take the summer off, art shows and exhibits have the attention all to themselves. With the occasional inclement weather and sometimes intolerable humidity, air-conditioned galleries suddenly become the ideal place to escape the heat.

A latecomer this summer is “Degas at Harvard,” an exhibition of Edgar Degas’s paintings, drawings, sculptures, prints, and photographs, at Harvard University’s Sackler Museum. The show is a rare opportunity to view all of the artist’s works across Harvard’s collections under one roof. The number of pieces is not large, but the wide range of media and the many sketches and sculptures allow visitors to see the masterpieces in process, and open a window more intimate to the artist than the finished works.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (1834–1917), the painter best known for his dancers, jockeys, and bathers, is an unusual artist. His life story is not decorated with bouts of turbulence like that of Vincent van Gogh, and his name is not synonymous with any group or movement like that of Claude Monet. Although he was associated with the Impressionists, he refused to bind himself with classification.

Born into an affluent family, the moody and occasionally unabashedly self-promoting artist was quite a calculating man. Though his paintings and drawings capture movements as if he just happened to walk in at the moment, he candidly admitted, “No art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and of the study of the great master; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament, I know nothing.” This exhibit is a testament to that statement.

Including only a handful of finished works, the exhibition consists mainly of sketches and sculptures made by the artist to use as models for drawings. His studies reveal the grid system he utilized to compose the posture of each figure and the relations among subjects in the finished works. The result is usually an intimate moment caught unaware — a woman dreamingly stares into space, a bather languidly wiping herself dry, and a dancer in the middle of her arabesque — though the process of such rendering is never unstructured. As the German painter Max Liebermann once wrote, “Degas is a master of creating compositions that do not look composed.”

Indeed, though every tilt of the head and every bend of the arm are deliberate, the finished works at the exhibition, such as “Chanteuse de Caf ,” “The Rehearsal,” and “After the Bath, Woman with a Towel,” capture fleeting moments that can only be caught by the glimpse of the eyes. Yet rendering spontaneous appearances through calculated means is not without consequence. Many works carry a sense of tension between motion and stillness. Movements are delivered by the figures’ unaffected poses, but absent is the feeling that these dancers, singers, bathers, or jockeys will continue their activities once released from the two-dimensional pictures. Instead, their movements are steadfastly arrested within the works, as if time has stopped for them eternally.

With these ephemeral moments made permanent, Degas allows the viewers to enter the concert, the race, or the rehearsal in medias res. A portal to the activities illustrated in the pictures has been opened, and the spectators are offered the chance to become the participants.

Not surprisingly, the pictures are also exquisitely executed. Degas was one of the few artists in his time to use pastel as the main medium for the finished works. Many pieces at the exhibition from the bather series, as well as some of the dancers, were done in this fashion. The combination of variegated shades and Degas’s penchant for lines creates a soothing gentleness fitting of the female elegance without sacrificing the realistic clarity he meant to portray.

Several pieces of Degas’s bronze sculptures at the exhibition certainly deserve no less attention than the paintings and drawings, notably “Grande Arabesque, Third Time,” and “Little Dancer, Age Fourteen.” The figures lack the solidity of conventional finished sculptures, but they sparkle of their own organic energy. Made mainly to help Degas in the study of movements, these figures carry an air of immediacy and motion about them.

Among the other works also on view are monographs and photographs, two of the media that Degas explored and employed more frequently when his eyesight started to deteriorate. Viewed side by side with the rest of the works, they round off an incredible collection that allows visitors a glimpse of Degas’s unconventional oeuvre, his endless experimentations with new media, and the experience the name Degas embodies today.

“Degas at Harvard” is on view through November 27. A series of gallery talks, lectures, and family activities are associated with the exhibit. Visit for details.