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Men at Work

Portraits at the Stock Exchange

The Impressionists clearly didn't believe in "all work and no play." At least not in depicting it. We've seen their subjects picnicking, shopping, strolling, and attending balls, circuses, and the opera, among other leisure activities. But not engaging in a lot of work. Until now. Degas's Portraits at the Stock Exchange depicts bankers and investors furtively whispering tips and speculations on the street in front of the Bourse, the Parisian stock exchange.

And what a uniform they're wearing. We're looking at a sea of almost indistinguishable top hats and sack coats. As you look closely, you notice small differences—slight variations in color, small differences in collars—but they're a rather homogeneous group. Which definitely spoke to the work they were doing. Their plain, sober clothing emphasized their practicality and respectability. These men clearly prioritized professional identity over a more personal one.

Most of the men are anonymous, but we do know that the man in the middle with the beard is the then thirty-four-year-old financier Ernest May. May was a collector and admirer of Degas's work, and the painting may in fact be commenting on the idea that for businessmen like May, engagement with the art world represented another kind of speculative enterprise.

Image Credit: Edgar Degas. Portraits at the Stock Exchange, 1878–79. Musée d'Orsay, Paris, bequest subject to usufruct in 1923 by Ernest May, RF 2444.