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Edgar Degas

by N.F. Karlins
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How’s your joy quotient? If you can use some livening up, I can guarantee you’ll find plenty in the parade of late, deliriously sensual nudes on view in the huge loan show “Degas and the Nude,” which remains on view for about one more month at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. This is the first exhibition to treat this key theme in Degas’ art.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917) is most famous for his ballet dancers, and is also celebrated for his café, opera and racetrack scenes -- but about 20 percent of Degas’s output was nudes. That percentage is much higher if you include his early, student works, since drawing the nude was the foundation for artistic study in mid-19th-century Paris.

By the beginning of the 1880s, Degas was turning out one masterpiece after another, and many of them were nudes. By 1890, his work was selling well and he retreated to his studio, continuing to produce work until his eyes deteriorated, a few years before his death. After that point, he never exhibited his work in a public exhibition again. A great many of his nude paintings and sculptures appeared on the market only after his death, and this might account for how surprised his fans, and the market, were to see them. This exhibition, however, proves that they still stun and enchant.

Many of Degas’s pastels and oils from the 1880s onward are thrilling in their color and compelling in their intimacy, like his small pastel over monotype Woman Leaving Her Bath (1886). The bright, carefully orchestrated colors swirl around the pale nude, highlighting her figure with a gentle play of light over the flesh. Only a single figure is visible in the frame, and the viewer has her all to him- or herself. Yet the result is about as far from erotic voyeurism as possible. Instead, this sensual work carries within it an innate dignity and discretion, which undercuts the overt eroticism of the figure. It is not an artificial confection composed to titillate, like some Orientalist fantasy, but rather holds a kind of natural truth.

How Degas’ unique blend of reverence for the artistic past with the freedoms claimed by his fellow Impressionists developed over the course of his career is a thrilling narrative, and it is unreeled in this must-see exhibition filling nine galleries displaying more than 150 drawings, oils, prints, sculptures and even a few remarkable photographs. It ends with works by artists who learned from him -- Paul Gauguin, Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

Degas’ artistic career began with aspirations to become a history painter. After study in France and three years spent in Italy in the late 1850s, the young artist finally submitted his first history painting, the worked and reworked Scene of War in the Middle Ages (1863-65), to the Salon, where it was exhibited in 1865. Although it has been declared a masterpiece of his early years, I find its composition too odd, confused by too many muddled passages, to be compelling -- but it does presage a number of poses and postures, in its nude figures, that Degas would use and reuse in the future, and is certainly an important document as such.

Degas, who never married, kept this painting and many of his other early works in his studio until he died. He would later use them for source material, returning to them again and again. In a certain way, they may have functioned for him as surrogate children of sorts.

In 1862, Degas met Édouard Manet -- a member of the upper-middle class like himself -- in the Louvre, and the two became friendly. One year later, Manet’s scandalous Luncheon on the Grass (1862-63) would be met with cries of outrage and adulation when exhibited in Paris. After 1870, Degas no longer sent works to the Salon, and in 1874 he began instead showing with the Impressionists.

The 1870s were not kind to Degas. He did military service during the Franco-Prussian War, and then retreated to New Orleans, where his mother’s family lived, to recoup his health in 1872. His father’s bank would eventually go bankrupt because of loans made to his brother in New Orleans, who could not repay them due to crop failure. Degas and his family were suddenly cast into financial difficulty, and he struggled to sell enough paintings, including works from his own collection by other artists, to spare the family any scandal.

Yet it was during this tumultuous period that Degas also turned himself into a master print-maker, creating a now famous series of monotypes of brothel scenes from which some of the best works in “Degas and the Nude” are drawn. Some of the prints are pornographic -- most were not shown in public during his lifetime -- but we know that the renowned avant-garde dealer Ambroise Vollard did show and sell some privately. It makes one wonder whether the brothel prints came about because of Degas’ urgent need to sell works, or whether he simply found himself interested in the subject?

In Degas’ black-and-white monotype The Serious Client (1876-77), a male looks over several nudes in a brothel. His cane is the phallic symbol that joins the two sexes. One of the women puts her hand over his while thrusting out her buttocks; even the reflection of the chandelier in the mirror is round like her derrière. There is no escaping the robust sexuality of the scene, and the man looks a bit overwhelmed by the situation.

It has been thought that Degas was never intimate with women, though a work like this would give lie to that idea. Indeed, before he died, Degas admitted to a friend that he had picked up a venereal disease as a young man. A male friend with whom he traveled also mentioned that Degas always bought condoms when they left town. In any case, Degas must have spent a lot of time in brothels and was certainly quite comfortable in them, judging by his many prints on the subject.

In the 1880s, Degas took up photography. Degas Seated beside a Sculpture by Albert Barthomlomé, which he very probably staged, shows the artist himself musing behind a marble nude -- a provocative pose which testifies to his sense of humor. It is also an example of one of the most common viewpoints used in his nudes, which often approaches the model from the rear, thereby eliminating the need to show pubic hair -- which would surely arouse the critics if not male viewers -- and eroticizing the back.

Degas was known for his shifting moods, and he could be prickly one moment and magnanimous the next. He grew grouchy in his later years, and has often been called a misogynist. But how could he have arrived at miracles like his La Toilette (1884-85), another depiction of a nude woman seen from behind, if women had not fascinated and enthralled him?

Despite showing with the Impressionists, Degas maintained that he was a “realist.” He once said that “no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and of the study of the great masters: of inspiration, spontaneity, I know nothing.” While it was true that Degas always finished his work in his studio (he even made a few catty remarks about art “en-plein-air,” directed towards Claude Monet), he was constantly exploring how the female body worked. In his late works, we see him experimenting in two dimensions, as with the differences exemplified in his pastel The Morning Bath (ca. 1887-90) and his foray into three dimensions, embodied in pieces like Dancer Looking at the Sole of her Right Foot (modeled 1896-1911 and cast between 1921-31).

Degas’ great last works delight, like his pastel The Tub (1886), or shock, like his After the Bath (Woman Drying Herself) (ca. 1896), but whatever response they provoke, they could only have been executed by this most reticent of modern of masters. “Degas and the Nude” is an excellent reason to visit Boston now.

“Degas and the Nude,” Oct. 9, 2011-Feb. 5, 2012, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Avenue of the Arts, 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Mass. 02115.

NANCY KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.