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John Haber
in New York City

Edgar Degas and His Private Collection

I have the perfect party game for a jaded art world: Name the most overcrowded exhibition of all time. In this blockbuster art scene, with unhealthy doses of Monet and Picasso at least once every year, winners do not get even timed tickets of their own. Maybe they get the privilege of looking at art outside the late nineteenth century. Paul Cézanne's Victor Chocquet (Collection Lord Victor Rothschild, Cambridge, 1875)

Collecting ideas

Now, thanks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I have a new candidate—the private collection of Edgar Degas. I have more in mind than 250-odd works and an alcove for reading, all crammed into just ten rooms, although that is a good start. I mean that one can barely move, much less get near the consummate detail on display. People once again smell Impressionism.

Have they found themselves contemplating a show that might aim at specialists? Well, it does, and that is why it is so intriguing. Degas's collection is fine enough in its own right for any viewer to take repeated pleasure, and it does something else wonderful, too. It helps to pin down the issues that faced a great artist and collector on the verge of Modernism.

Like much of the horrific crowd, the newspapers hardly knew what to make of it. For once the Met's wall labels help rather than repeat the obvious, but perhaps not enough. Despite their aid, the reviews have hedged a bit, wondering if too much were second rate. Not a bit. Edgar Degas knew what he was after, and he got it.

That includes more than a dozen superb drawings and portrait paintings by Ingres, a neat sequence of Daumier prints, and a portrait of Victor Choquet by Paul Cézanne, who so excelled in portraits of his wife. I got a kick out of seeing again the Manet from Princeton's museum, a Native American woman with the insouciance and hand-rolled cigarette of a Parisian dandy. As undergraduates, we liked to think that she smoked a joint.

The last three rooms show work by the artist himself, all left when he died. This includes The Milliners from the Art Institute of Chicago and The Bellini Family from the Louvre. That composition has enough psychological dynamics to keep all four family members in therapy for years should they come back to life. A monotype of a fireside is as modern as anyone of Degas's time will ever get. All this has another advantage as well, for it helps one see an artist's tastes in context of what he could do.

What no doubt confuses the press is that natural urge to call this "the Degas Collection," like the next great gift to the Met from a 1990s' robber baron. By that standard, the works are a little too familiar to those who already visit museums, and they may not add up to what the term collection might suggest. Collecting for Degas meant something different from what today's art world expects. It was almost today's notion of an alternative space!

The museum of nearly modern art

Degas was not out to amass "quality" through the ages. He purchased a Goya or two, a David and a Fragonard, and one Japanese print, but no earlier art and no other art from outside France. Degas copied a Mantegna in the Louvre, but he was not collecting what then were called Italian primitives. In a sense, even that work by Jean Honoré Fragonard did not reach into the past: Berthe Morisot, a painter close to Degas, would have called Fragonard family.

Nor was Degas out to represent the cutting edge in the year 1912. Today's collectors of postmodern art get proper obsequies in the Sunday New York Times. If Degas were alive today, he would probably have excluded the press from his home. His collection ends with Gauguin and Cézanne—and not late works either. Like the strange perspective he used to capture dancers, he was on the edge but never over it, Modernism's perfect gentleman.

Degas was onto something very different from the aims of a wealthy private collector today. He was mapping a tradition, and not simply a tradition of Western or even French painting. He was out to describe where painting in Paris stood. He was defining what has been called the tradition of the new. For Degas, tradition was specifically national. Like his collection, he was still struggling with the split between followers of Ingres and Delacroix, Classicism and Romanticism.

One can see, for example, why he might have felt uneasy with Gustave Courbet. It is a long way from an aristocratic anti-Semite like Degas to the older man, a rebel whose reputation pretty much went down with the Paris Commune. However, Courbet also had little to do with Degas's trust in a quiet, observant, disciplined eye to shape the future.

Tradition, for him, led specifically to modern art. When at last he opened his studio briefly to visitors, as a kind of museum, he placed recent painting alongside the masters. The first room in the Met's exhibition recreates that display, and Goya once again hangs alongside Corot. Degas defended Corot against the charge that landscape had become too easy. "Easy for Corot," he replied.

Most of all, tradition was about a new kind of painting, much like Degas's own. I want to use just one word for it, incisive. It was as sober and precise as the Japanese calligraphy just then coming into style. It aimed to capture in a moment the place of an artist in modern society.

Modernism, sober up

Degas valued concision and structure more than three-dimensional modeling or texture. The show includes dozens of sheets of hands, feet, and heads, but no traditional drapery studies other than one of Degas's own. Figure painting far outweighs landscape, genre, and narrative, even for the samples of Delacroix. When Degas copies a Delacroix, he sticks to patches of color, a view of how tone coheres as structure.

In the show Manet follows Daumier and appears to carry on the same mission. There are none of Manet's flamboyant compositions or startling patches of color. Instead, one sees concise, deadpan observations of artists, friends, and assorted other Bohemians. All are finding their place in Paris and in modern life. Morisot, usually one of the period's sexiest sitters as well as artists, is in black, of course—but in mourning.

For Degas, modern painting took skill, not trickery. The fanciest games with perspective come in the artist's own work. With others, he demands a sharp, quiet eye. Mary Cassatt is represented by a subtle experiment in prints. In her series, changing background detail creates a soft, shifting balance.

Cézanne too is at his soberest, without any of his early expressionism or those late, great landscapes that let in so much light by toying with forms in space. Even Gauguin seems sane for a change. As for Claude Monet with his preference for landscape, Pierre-Auguste Renoir in his blustery interiors, or emerging styles of formalism, do not even ask.

Degas's vision, the exhibition suggests, had its blind spots. In the end, Modernism was to pursue the wilder side of young artists and even of Degas himself. It was to make the old debates about Classicism and Romanticism seem irrelevant, if never quite outgrowing their assumptions. Art today is still fussing over and fighting against formal unity and original expression.

Still, this collection really does show what Degas was after—modernity as a tradition. He and others were just inventing that tradition, and almost a century later, it looks like they did a good job. For most people, one can only caution, this exhibition well may be a lovely but strange place to find out.

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Degas's private collection ran through January 11, 1998, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. A related review looks at Degas monoprints, and another article take up an interview for which I sat on its subject.


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