Magazine article The Spectator

The Great Collector

Magazine article The Spectator

The Great Collector

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 1

The Private Collection of Edgar Degas (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, till 11 January 1998)

Degas keeps it up,' a friend of the painter wrote in 1896, `buying, buying. In the evening he asks himself how he will pay for what he bought that day, and the next morning he starts in again: more Ingres, some Delacroix, and El Greco this week. And then he takes a certain pride in announcing that he can no longer afford to clothe himself.' Long before Edgar Degas died, in 1917 when he was in his mid-eighties and almost totally blind, he had amassed one of the most extraordinary collections of modern art anywhere.

Degas often referred to his collection, installed on the ground floor of his huge apartment at 37 rue Victor Masse, as his 'musee'. He even considered starting a museum to exhibit the work, but gave up the idea when he realised how much red tape would be involved. In the meantime, only a very few lucky friends were invited to see the art. Dozens of paintings and sketches by Degas's two chief idols, the coolly precisionist Ingres and the Romantic colourist Delacroix, led the list of works. But there were also masterpieces by Cezanne, Sisley, Pissarro, Manet (Degas owned copies of nearly all Manet's graphic work), Mary Cassatt, Gauguin, Corot, Hiroshige, and thousands of lithographs by the illustrators Daumier and Paul Gavarni. Famously reluctant to part with his own work, De.gas hoarded many of his best paintings, including `Family Portrait (The Bellelli Family)', a spectacular picture from the late 1850s that is now in the Musee d'Orsay, and 'Interior' (also called `The 'Rape') now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

All in all, there were 8,000 works in the collection, 3,000 by Degas himself, many of which were entirely unknown until after his death. It took the combined efforts of Paris's three most important dealers Bernheim-Jeune, Durand-Ruel, and Ambroise Vollard - and eight separate auctions over 18 months to dispose of the art. `Degas Collection Sold', a newspaper headline shouted: `Shelling of Paris Fails to Interfere with Art Sale.' While the Germans bombarded Paris in 1918, curators from the National Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Louvre and many private collectors and dealers flocked to the sales. At the critic Roger Fry's behest, John Maynard Keynes arranged for a special 20,000 government grant for the National Gallery, whose acquisition budget had been suspended during the war. Keynes travelled to Paris with Charles Holmes, director of the National Gallery, and came back with nearly 30 works by Ingres, Delacroix, Corot, Gauguin, Manet and others.

A tiny sample of Degas's collection was on view at the National Gallery last year when Ann Dumas organised Degas as a Collector, 40-odd pictures from the painter's collection that supplemented the great Degas: Beyond Impressionism exhibition then making the rounds. Now Ms Dumas and her collaborators have gathered over 300 works for The Private Collection of Edgar Degas, which naturally provides a much fuller overview of Degas's activity as a collector. It should be said straight off that, unlike many blockbusters, this exhibition leaves one feeling exhilarated rather than exhausted. Not every item in the show is a masterpiece; Gauguin comes off looking a good deal cruder and more formulaic than one might have remembered; the two Van Goghs are pretty forgettable; and some of the lithographs by Daumier and Gavarni are finally of greater sociological than aesthetic interest. …

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