Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Edgar Degas "Etude pour La Fille de Jephte” - A Closer Look - Essay


"...nearly lost my composure when I saw a lovely sketch by Degas. I decided it would be fun to provide a tiny bit of art historical background..."


Edgar Degas "Etude pour La Fille de Jephte” - A Closer Look

While viewing the Menil Collection’s drawing exhibition “The Beginning of Everything,” I nearly lost my composure when I saw a lovely sketch by Degas.  I decided it would be fun to provide a tiny bit of art historical background on that drawing.

Finely rendered in graphite on paper, "Etude pour La Fille de Jephte” (c. 1859) depicts a youthful nude male figure with legs widely spread, torso bent forward, and one hand to the ground.  Art historians believe Degas created it as a preliminary study for a large painting he had begun upon returning to Paris after living in Italy.  Except for a few unsure sketchy lines around the figure’s head and hand, Degas handling reveals the linear refinement he mastered from closely studying Ingres.  His engagement with volume on the other hand, the shadowed contouring of legs, arms, back and shoulder muscles, evidences his recent immersion in the world of classical statuary and Italian Renaissance painting.  Most importantly, the drawing reveals Degas’ preoccupation with body movement and awkward positions which would continue for the rest of his career.

Degas made this drawing at an interesting point in his development.  While remaining heavily influenced by the static linear style of Ingres, he was beginning to look closely at the agitated motion of Delacroix.  In fact he wrote himself reminders to model bodies more expressively in the manner of Delacroix.

The artist’s father found this worrisome.  His fortune was inadequate, Degas Sr. corresponded, which made it necessary for Degas to succeed in his painting career.  He believed his son was on the right track with history subjects, but misdirected in appropriating Delacroix’s decadent style.  It was Degas Sr.’s opinion that Delacroix foolishly valued passion over the sacred pillar of draftsmanship, and he urged Degas to follow Ingres’ path towards “perfection,” the implication being some unhinged style would cost him government support and state commissions.

How interesting that other nearly identical versions of this bent over nude exist from that period.  We actually had the opportunity to see two last year in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s exhibition “Degas: A New Vision.”  MFAH borrowed its two drawings from the Musée d’Art moderne André Malraux in Le Havre, while the Menil’s bent over nude is from Janie C. Lee’s collection.

Why the duplications? This can be attributed to Degas’ over-heated focus on movement of the body. In their superb exhibition catalogue for “Degas: A New Vision,” MFA,H’s Gary Tinterow and the Louvre’s Henri Loyrette explained that Degas spent forty years repeating certain animated poses. They also put his hanky-pankying around with Delacroix in perspective.  Degas undoubtedly saw himself as an heir of both, but Ingres ruled.  Ingres, Loyrette wrote, “laid out a roadmap and Degas was never to diverge from it.”

See the Degas drawing in the Menil Collection's exhibition “The Beginning of Everything: Drawings from the Janie C. Lee, Louisa Stude Sarofim, and David Whitney Collections.” 

Image: Edgar Degas, Etude pour “La Fille de Jephte,” c. 1859.  Graphite, traces ink wash on paper, 8 7/8 x 11 7/16 in. (19.3 x 25.2 cm).  From the collection of Janie C. Lee.  Image taken from the “Houston Press” website.

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