Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology

By Francis Frascina; Charles Harrison et al. | Go to book overview

8 'L'Exposition des Indépendants'
in 1880

J. K. Huysmans


On Degas

I do not recall having ever felt as moved as I was when, in 1876, I first came upon the works of this master. This was a real feeling of 'possession' for me, since I had, until then, been solely attracted towards the paintings of the Dutch school, which satisfied my needs for reality and intimacy. The modern, which I had sought in vain in the exhibitions of the time, and which only broke through in places, piecemeal, suddenly appeared in front of me, in its entirety. When I made my writing début in a weekly rag called the Gazette des Amateurs, produced by M. Bachelin- Deflorenne, I wrote the following lines:

M. Degas exhibits two oil paintings which depict ballet dancers from the Opéra: three women in yellow tulle skirts are folded in each other's arms; behind them, the backdrop is being raised to reveal the pink costumes of the corps de ballet; there's an extraordinary realism about the way these three women are set firmly on their hips and their points.

They don't have artificial creamy skin but rather real flesh, just a little faded by the layers of powder and ointments. It is all absolutely real and truly beautiful. I would also recommend a look at the painting above this one, which shows the body of a woman, leaning forward, as well as two drawings on pink paper in which one ballerina is seen from behind whilst the other ties up her shoe. Both are captured with an unusual suppleness and strength.

The joy I first felt as a novice has since increased at every exhibition in which Degas' paintings have been shown.

A painter of modern life had been born, moreover a painter who derived from and resembled no other, who brought with him a totally new artistic flavour, as well as totally new skills. Washerwomen in their shops, dancers at rehearsals, café‐ concert singers, theatres, race-horses, portraits, cotton dealers in America, women stepping out of their bath, boudoir and dressing-room impressions, all these diverse topics have been treated by this artist though he is generally reputed to have only painted ballet dancers!

But in this year's exhibition, it is paintings of the ballet that predominate. And, if it were possible, he has surpassed himself here, this delicate man with his nervous sensitive temperament, whose eye is so strangely haunted and preoccupied by the human figure in motion, be it under the artificial glare of gas lamps or in the wan daylight of rooms lit by the sad rays coming from a courtyard.

Look at this dance examination, one ballet dancer bent over to tie a lace and another, her head on her chest, with her roman nose bulging from beneath her red

____________________
Source: L'Art Moderne ( Paris, 1883), translated by Martine Moon and Belinda Thomson. L'Art Moderne was reissued in 1969 by Gregg International, England.

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