Interpretive Resource

Essay: "Degas and Transcendence" by Richard Wilbur

A short essay inspired by Edgar Degas' Portrait after a Costume Ball, 1879 and Ballet at the Paris Opera, 1877.

Art Institute of Chicago. Transforming Vision: Writers on Art. Art Institute of Chicago, 1994, p. 33.

RICHARD WILBUR On Edgar Degas, Portrait after a Costume Ball (Portrait of Mine Dietz-Monnin), 1877 / 79, and Ballet at the Paris Opera, 1877 DEGAS AND TRANSCENDENCE Here is an attempted translation, done many years ago, of one of those sonnets that Degas took to writing in the latter 1880s: I think that, sure of the beauty of her repose, Indolent nature had in the former time Too dully slept, had grace not often come With gay and panting voice to bid her rise And beaten then for her a pleasing measure, And with the motion of her speaking hands And twining of her fiery feet, commanded That she cavort before her, full of pleasure. Then come, my darlings, wear that rabble face, And do not wish for beauty’s needless glow! Leap brazenly, my priestesses of grace! From the dance you gain a rareness in our eyes, An air heroic and remote. You know That queens are made of distance and disguise. The sestet addresses the ballet-girls who are one of the major subjects of Degas the painter, but the poem bears also upon all of his most interesting work, even such a canvas as Portrait after a Costume Ball. Degas’ poem is not impressed by given or natural beauty; what concerns it is art’s joyous and difficult striving, by way of graceful movement, toward a condition of "rareness" or transcendence. That condition, as another of the sonnets tells, is precarious and brief: "Mais d’un signe toujours cesse le beau mystere."

A perfectionist who hated to declare any picture finished, Degas was especially devoted to such subjects—the cafe singer, the thoroughbred horse, the dancer—as involve hard training undergone in hopes of flawless performance, and the whipping of indolent flesh toward a moment of spirit. Does he paint such moments of assimilation to Le Beau or La Grece Seldom, or seldom in isolation from the grubby, prosaic world out of which those moments have risen. At any rate, one finds the fundamental drama of Degas’ art in the sort of painting where one ballerina gracefully practices a position, while another, all adolescent gawkiness, sprawls wearily on a chair nearby; or in a painting like Ballet at the Paris Opera, where the rehearsing dancers, transformed upon the lighted stage, are eyed from the dim pit by "male admirers and members of the orchestra."

Degas’ disinclination to apotheosize is found not only in his ballet paintings, but everywhere else: he tends to see his subjects not afloat in vignetting, or complacently central, but involved in role and time and circumstance—in the process of their lives. It is this commitment to circumstance and process, I think—not the influence of photography or a leaning toward abstraction—which makes for his more surprising compositions, wherein horses may half-leave the canvas, or a great bouquet cramp and overshadow a woman. The concern with motion and the momentary does not, of course, result in any expressive blurring; quite the contrary Degas’ Ingres-like drawing precisely captures the queenly arabesque of one dancer, the manner in which another tugs at her slipper, the contortion of a woman drying the back of her neck with a towel, the way in which one laundress bears down on the iron while another yawns in the heat and stretches; and in Portrait after a Costume Ball we indisputably have the expression, posture, and movement of a tired-but-happy hostess waving farewell to her guests. It is in his exact seizing of the split-second gesture (social, professional, habitual, artistic, or involuntarily expressive) that Degas is most universally human, and most transcends time.

Impressionism
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