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.  It’s believed 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 gained from closely studying Ingres.  His engagement with volume is clearly evident in shadowed contouring of legs, arms, back and shoulder muscles, not surprising after 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.  Because of his inadequate fortune, Degas Sr. corresponded, it was necessary for Degas Jr. 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 Sr.’s opinion that Delacroix foolishly valued passion over the sacred pillar of draftsmanship, and he urged Degas Jr. to follow Ingres’ path towards “perfection,” the implication being some wild ass style would cost him government support and state commissions.

It’s 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 extremely similar drawings from the Musée d’Art moderne André Malraux in Le Havre, while the Menil’s nude is from Janie C. Lee’s collection.

The near duplications 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.”

You only have a few more days to see the Menil’s drawing exhibition, “The Beginning of Everything: Drawings from the Janie C. Lee, Louisa Stude Sarofim, and David Whitney Collections,” selected drawings promised by trustees Lee and Sarofim, and bequeathed in 2005 by Whitney, which ends on June 18.  This show includes nearly one hundred artworks, by thirty-three artists, which date from the mid-1800s through the late 20th century.  Although the show is ending, we will eventually get to see the drawings again, and even study them closely, when the $40 million 30,000-square-foot Menil Drawing Institute, the fifth art building to be erected on the Menil’s 30-acre campus, opens in October 2017.

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.