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Edgar Degas

The first digital catalogue raisonné

by Michel Schulman, expert

All Degas's letters recently published by Theodore Reff

The Letters of Edgar Degas by Theodore Reff has just been published in the United States which is, for certain, a landmark in the knowledge of the life and work of Degas, publication that allows us to enter into the intimacy of the man and the artist.

Michel Schulman

This translation into English is due to deepl, the finest artificial intelligence application at present available. Please forgive possible mistakes.

The Letters of Edgar Degas

Eminent professor at Columbia University in New York, Theodore Reff has mainly dedicated his research to Edgar Degas, to whom he has devoted numerous publications, including The Notebooks of Edgar Degas. A Catalogue of the Thirty-Eight Notebooks in the Bibliothèque Nationale and Other Collections in 1976 and 1985; the Supplement to the Catalogue Raisonné of Degas published in 1984 with Philippe Brame. These important publications should not obscure the many others, notably in the Burlington Magazine since 1963 (see his entry on Wikipedia).

The Letters of Edgar Degas is presented in three volumes, the first two of which contain 1251 letters or fragments of letters transcribed in print, as Degas handwriting was difficult to read, including 1219 letters with the name of the recipients, twenty-one letters to unknown ones, which are followed by five newly discovered letters. Following this, there are six more pages of letters of uncertain attribution and unknown location. Each letter is accompanied by numerous foot notes that provide unparalleled details on one or another element of the content.

Self-portrait, 1863,
Lisbon, Fond. Calouste Gulbenkian MS-690

The other essential pillar of this edifice is certainly the sovereign introduction of a hundred pages in English. Theodore Reff considered it necessary that this body of information on Degas, which the letters constitute, be accompanied by an enlightened, "raisonné" commentary, capable of producing a sharp and clever understanding of Degas, the man and the artist.

The third volume is devoted to Degas's letters translated into English, the foot notes being found in the two previous volumes where the letters are presented in their original language. This third volume includes index by names of people and places as well as a useful index of the subjects/themes found in Degas' letters.

In his preface, Reff outlines the history of previous publications of these letters. But before addressing this topic, let us clarify that this publication does not reproduce a correspondence stricto sensu, since it deals only with Degas's letters, not with the ones of his correspondents, all those letters he received but did not take care to keep "[those] letters he received but failed to save," writes Reff (p. 15). We do not know the reasons for such a gap, but Reff already rejects the reason of the artist's numerous moves, which could have led to a certain disorder in his affairs. Was it a big clean-up of his papers before the last "stage" when he was becoming blind? The refusal of his heirs to enter his private life? We find ourselves, to tell the truth, without an answer on this subject.

So, before analyzing the content of the letters of Degas published by Reff, let us return for a brief moment to the history of their publications. The first, by Marcel Guérin, to which Daniel Halévy contributed with 189 letters, dates from 1931. This first edition was followed by a second one in 1945, which included 251 letters. In 1947, these letters were published in English. Since that time, art historians have continued to search for, discover and publish hundreds of letters from Degas' family, and even from various institutions, acquired as they came in. Reff points out that 15 letters belonging to Thérèse Degas, the painter's sister, were published by Michael Pantazzi (1988); another 46 letters addressed to his colleague and friend Paul Lafond joined this batch (Jean Adhémar and Denys Sutton, 1987); and still another 138 intended for friends, the artists he frequented, his collectors and dealers, were published in Degas inédit in 1988-89. Then came Degas' letters to his dealer Durand-Ruel (Caroline Durand-Ruel-Godfroy, 2012 in the context of the Edgar Degas colloquium at the Fondation Beyeler). Many of the letters sold at auctions found their way to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the Fondation Custodia, the Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits in Paris, or the Getty Research Institute. Among others...

Among the many subjects to which Reff has chosen to apply his analysis in his preface and mainly in his introduction, we shall retain here those that seem to us the most interesting: Degas relations with women; the fact that the subject of art or aesthetics is almost absent from his letters; the problem of his health and his constant preoccupations on this subject; his political "positioning" and the inevitable question of his anti-Semitism.

But the reading of these letters will allow us to note that Degas often shares his "moods" on the world around him and the small worries of his daily life, expressed mainly in the particular circumstances of his travels through France, while he is far from Paris. Degas becomes the Parisian of the time who lives relatively comfortably but likes to give up his habits from time to time to discover new realities. Degas' curiosity, as his art shows, is infinite, and the man, as much as the artist, likes to be surprised. His letters speak of life as it is lived day by day by a man of his condition, in these times of discoveries that follow one another rapidly in the last decades of the nineteenth century and that changed the life of the French people. Travelling on horse, by velocipede, stagecoach or railroad becomes a subject that leads to his reflections or criticisms. His stops in hotels and restaurants are also the subject of interesting comments where humor mixes with the finesse of his observations.

Precise, subtle, perceptive, funny, sometimes even scathing but always relevant, Degas is never boring and that is also what makes this book so interesting.

Degas and women

The Dance Lesson, private collection MS-690

Degas never married. At that time, writes Theodore Reff, 10% of French men and women were not, and he had no children. So much so that he could be considered misogynistic. This is contradicted by the almost daily presence of women near him: first his models he paints, draws and sculpts, although he admits that he never felt the absolute need to have them pose. But women are constantly the object of his observations. As he says about his landscapes, he also sometimes paints them "from memory". They are either busy with their toilet - bathers, women combing their hair - or observed at the Opéra, where he regularly goes to see the little dancers practicing, or at work, such as his ironers.

In fact, women dominate almost all his work. And it is not forbidden to think that he may have been moved by the beauty of those who served as models, or met at dinners between relations or friends, or during his travels. For example, he would not have been insensitive to the grace of the Creole women he met during his stay in New Orleans. He was then thirty-eight years old. However, in a letter addressed to his friend Bartholomé, on August 16, 1892, he writes: "... Passions, I have none" (Letter 505). Is he here talking about women? About the various aspects of his daily life, which art is obviously a part of? He will always remain discrete, even secret, on his emotional and sexual life, which is a real mystery for his entourage. This has led some to write that he obviously lacked "temperament", even going so far as to suggest that he was perhaps impotent.

However, Degas was caught being seduced by certain women. We know, for example, that he had a crush on Hortense Howland and Ellen André. His friendship with the American artist Mary Cassatt, which, although bumpy, lasted more than forty years, is better known. "Here is someone who feels as I feel", said Degas about her. Two different temperaments that nevertheless came together through their sensibilities.

Lacking a wife of his own, Degas sometimes maintained a kind of friendship with the wives of some of his friends. For example, he was particularly fond of Bartholomé's wife and even abandoned his friend a little after her death. Finally, he went so far as to admit that he found marriage charming, but he had to live this bond by proxy.

So through his letters - and all that has been written about him - we understand that Degas's relationship with women was complex to say the least. We cannot leave this chapter without quoting him a last time, an unambiguous statement in which he does not give himself the nice role... In his letter addressed to Ludovic Halévy on August 21, 1893, he writes: "Women are good, when we are no longer worth anything" (Letter 545). Attraction? Misogyny? All this remains controversial and subject to interpretation. But we willingly follow Theodore Reff when he says: "Degas was not only attracted to women, he had an enormous respect for them" (p. 60).

Degas and his family

Portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Morbilli
Boston Museum of Fine Arts MS-723

In return for these "uncommittal" arrangements regarding his relationships with women, Degas showed himself to be very attached to his family: brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces. This same attachment Degas extended to some of his friends, as expressed in this letter to Alexis Rouart: "You are my family" (p. 60).

Was Degas then seeking new affections after the disappearance of some of his own family members? One can assume so. Thus Degas is never more at ease than in the midst of his own family. He regularly evokes them in his letters, often writes to them, paints them individually or in groups, in the bourgeois interiors they occupy and which reflect the material ease they enjoy without ostentation. This shared attachment probably helped him to cope with an intimate emotional lack and a profound solitude.

Degas and art

"Those who expect to learn something about Degas's ideas on art are bound to be disappointed", Reff acknowledges in his introduction (p. 72). Indeed, the passages in which Degas expresses himself on art are so few that one cannot compare this epistolary corpus to those of Van Gogh's correspondence, or even that of Manet. And Degas confided on this subject to Georges Jeanniot on August 10, 1892: "Something denser on painting or drawing would find a place here even if my ideas were there, but they are not" (Letter 502). Does he mean here the indigence or the "dryness" of his opinions on art? One hardly dares to believe it, but "apart from his favorite painters, Ingres and Delacroix, [Degas] rarely mentions the names of other artists in his letters, and if he does, the content of his remarks is rather anecdotal", says Reff (p. 81).

Degas at the Café Guerbois, by Edouard Manet, 1869, Washington, NGA

Apart from certain letters in which his competence in photography (a commission to a supplier), or in sculpture (see his letters to Bartholomé), or in lithography, Degas expresses himself little on art, and on his own in particular. Did Degas keep his opinions for discussions between artists in the famous cafés of Montmartre, the Grands Boulevards and the Batignolles, near which he lived, to name only the Café Guerbois, the Nouvelle Athènes, the La Rochefoucauld, the Baudequin and the Rat Mort, where he regularly met famous painters and writers, or those who were soon to become so? This is very likely because these letters were most of the time written while traveling, far from Paris, and it seems natural, after all, that Degas wanted to share with his correspondents what he was experiencing at the moment (p. 65).

Degas and the landscape

Landscape, Houston Museum of Fine Arts MS-619

It seems interesting to address the issue of landscape painting in Degas's work here, especially since he witnessed firsthand the blossoming and flowering of Impressionism. Although Degas, from the beginning, supported the first adherents of this movement and participated in its exhibitions, this new modernity did not suit him because drawing was a fundamental element in the construction of a work of art and for whom the experience of the "plein air" was not suitable.

This did not prevent him, on September 5, 1885, from writing to Durand-Ruel, his dealer, from Dieppe where he was on vacation: "You are right. What a beautiful country. Every day we go for walks in the vicinity which would eventually make me a landscape painter" (Letter 262). It should be remembered that during the years he spent in Italy between 1856 and 1858, he had devoted himself to depicting the surrounding nature and later, in France, executed numerous views of the seaside that remind of Eugène Boudin. In the mid-1890s, it was the village of Saint-Valéry-sur-Somme that called for his pastel pencils and brushes.

But did Degas paint from the motif or from memory? An embryo of an answer can be found in a letter to Albert Hecht, dated November 30, 1880, when he writes about the dancers: "I have done so many of these dance exams without having seen them, that I am a little ashamed of it" (Letter 138). And further on, in a letter to his family of December 4 [1892]: "I made a small exhibition of twenty-six imaginary landscapes at Durand-Ruel's..." (Letter 523).

One may well wonder whether this was a common practice for him and how many works he produced in this way. One should not forget that his early blindness worried him; it is moreover the reason why he forbade himself to paint outside, the light hurting his eyes. This is confirmed by the works executed in New Orleans. In summary, it should be noted that in a corpus of approximately 1900 paintings and pastels recorded to date by us, there are hardly more than 7% of landscapes.

Degas: his health problems

As early as 1875 - he had just reached forty - Degas began to complain about the progressive loss of his sight, which he regularly mentioned in his letters. Of course, we will not quote them all, but already, during his stay in New Orleans (winter 1872-73), his eyesight was tormenting him. He appreciated the gentleness of the place and the welcome of its inhabitants but felt impeded when it came to depicting them. Twenty years later, in a letter dated January 24, 1892 to his friend Paul Lafond, one understands that the situation has really worsened: "... [my] eyesight is diminishing a lot, the left eye has something that prevents me from reading..." (Letter 477). This reality never ceased to haunt him and will even push him to ask his friends to use a special pen (which makes a wider line) to write to him. So a possible blindness remains his major preoccupation and could explain, according to us, the anatomical deformations that we observe in his dancers and bathers, as well as the use of more and more vivid colors in the pastels of this period.

Then a little later, around 1895, he began to complain about his kidneys, intestines and bladder, and thought his heart was also affected. Worse still, he felt he was going deaf and had moments of depression. All these signs of deterioration of his health explain his increasingly frequent spa treatments in Cauterets, in the Pyrenees, and in Mont-Dore, in Auvergne. All these details lead to the conclusion that Degas was preoccupied by his health problems throughout his life, hence, here and there in his correspondence, barely veiled allusions to his end.

Degas and anti-Semitism

Among the topics discussed by Theodore Reff in his introduction, we have retained, among others, that of Degas anti-Semitism, which was exacerbated by the Dreyfus Affair. Degas did not escape this political cataclysm which shook and divided French society, and whose consequences would last until the Second World War.

A Family Dinner, Caran d'Ache, 1898, BnF. "They finally argued about the Dreyfus Affair..."

On August 8, 1897, in his letter to Georges Jeanniot, there is mention of the "château" (of Diénay, in Burgundy) almost "enjuivé" (Letter 741), a term strong enough to be cited here as one of the first written manifestations of his anti-Semitism. In Diénay, a charming village in Burgundy, friends of the Lorraine painter and writer Charles de Meixmoron de Dombasle used to meet occasionally in the summer, and the latter used to invite them to spend some time in his country house. It was the painter Jeanniot who had introduced them. Monet and Feydeau, among others, had their habits there. One can imagine that at the time of the Dreyfus Affair, too many guests, Jews or not, had shown themselves to be Dreyfus supporters and that this displeased Degas. Then, in a letter dated September 6-8, 1898, addressed to Alexis Rouart, Degas wrote: "One does not talk about affairs in order not to cry with anger" (Letter 993).

But where does Degas anti-Semitism come from? From his family roots and his bourgeois education? We know that he had joined the National Guard during the Siege of Paris in 1870. This testifies to a certain patriotic impulse, but Degas devotion is not exceptional, several artists had also enlisted, some even lost their lives.

Despite his strong opinion on the Dreyfus Affair, Degas continued to maintain friendly relations with certain Jewish friends, including Ludovic Halévy, and to pursue professional relations with, for example, the dealer Bernheim. Seeking to situate Degas's political views, Reff quotes this passage from a letter from Degas to Henri Rouart dated October 16, 1883: "Let us try to cling to this land, however republican it may be..." (Letter 202). Is the term "republican" used in this context opposed to "monarchist" or "aristocratic"?

Without going that far, Reff simply sees in it Degas growing inclination for a somewhat narrow conservatism, which would not be alien to the social class which he came from (p. 68). In his book Degas, of 1991, Henri Loyrette, as for him, wants to be more careful: "One will be careful not to speak about his political opinions and to draw up, as one does too often, the uniform portrait of the artist in reactionary" (p. 642-643).

Valéry, him, had already expressed himself about Degas whom he admired as an artist: "His ideas are simple, peremptory and essentially Parisian" (idem, p. 641), and sticks to him the qualifier of "chauviniste". Finally, it is surprising that the break with the Halévys did not take place until 1897, as Loyrette attests from a letter from Degas, dated December 23 of that year. Despite this serious breach in their friendship, they would nevertheless meet again ten years later.

Unfortunately, no writings by Degas have been found in which, after the rehabilitation of Captain Dreyfus in 1906, he confessed or repented of his error. It is legitimate to think that he maintained this attitude until the end.

Degas, witness to a modernizing France

The train Paris - Saint-Germain-en-Laye,
inaugurated in 1837

An unexpected benefit of reading Degas' letters is that it takes us back to a France in full economic and social expansion, a France that, first under the time of Napoleon III (1851-1870), then under the Third Republic, was constantly modernizing. First of all, the railroad, created in 1837, thus exactly contemporary of Degas, contributed a lot to this new expansion by favoring the quick circulation of goods and men. The railroad network, which was first experimented with over short distances, spread throughout France in the mid-1850s. It was a privileged way for Degas to visit his friends, who were sometimes far away, to go more easily to the places of his thermal cures and to visit France in all directions.

Thus, the letters speak of certain places he visited: the Mont Saint-Michel where he had lunch at the famous Mère Poulard, the castle of Blois, the cathedral of Le Mans, that of Chartres, without forgetting his numerous tours in Burgundy where he visibly appreciated the cuisine and the good wines. It is now easier to understand how a large part of Degas' letters were written in those moments of lost time or leisure, which he allowed himself more and more frequently.

As for the way in which the new technical progress had changed the daily life of the French, Reff, commenting on a letter of Degas written from Paris, gives us an idea. He tells us on a foot note that in the 1870s there were eight postal deliveries a day and eight post offices in the 9th arrondissement of Paris. Kaleidoscope of a modern France where appear, between 1865 and 1887, the velocipede, the pneumatic, the telegram and the telephone, so many inventions which considerably accelerated the rythm of life of the French. In his book Monsieur Degas, Bourgeois de Paris, published in 1938 (Librairie Floury), Georges Rivière speaks of the importance of this moment of civilization for a Degas who was curious about new things, even if he sometimes showed some reluctance to adapt to them.

When Degas died, few people attended his funeral. Lemoisne quotes barely twenty people. He ends his biography with the following words: "In the midst of the great events of 1917 [First World War], his death did not have the repercussions that such a personality deserved. It is true that Degas had so exaggerated his retirement that the public, always ungrateful, if it admired more and more his magnificent work, had already almost forgotten the man" (Lemoisne, Edgar Degas, Catalogue raisonné, IV, page 202).

The Letters of Edgar Degas by Theodore Reff
The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, 2020
Distributed by The Pennsylvania State University Press


Publication : 16-03-2021