Simulating Degas' Vision: Implications for Dating His Sculpture

By Marmor, Michael F. | The Sculpture Journal, December 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Simulating Degas' Vision: Implications for Dating His Sculpture


Marmor, Michael F., The Sculpture Journal


Edgar Degas (1834-1917) lefta large number of pieces of sculpture in his studio when he died, mostly small wax models, unsigned and undated, and in various stages of disrepair. He had made sculptures since the 1860s when still a young man, but only one was ever exhibited, and all of the bronze castings are posthumous. None of these works were dated by the sculptor, and dating them has become a central issue to Degas scholarship since it is difficult to discuss style and purpose without knowing when they were done. In almost a century of catalogues and reviews, dating has been largely a matter of historical speculation based on similarities in style to his pastels and paintings. The only objective data has been X-ray analysis of the armature. A technique has recently been developed for simulating the effects of poor vision in an artist, and the purpose of this article is to investigate the application of this technique to the dating of Degas' sculpture.

It is well documented that Degas suffered from visual loss that began before 1870 and progressed until the end of his life.1 The exact cause of this visual decline is unknown, but his disease was probably in the central retina (a type of 'maculopathy'), since cataract or glaucoma could and would have been recognized and treated. By 1900 he could barely write and he would have been classified as 'legally blind' in modern terminology. Nearly twenty-five years ago Richard Kendall analysed the role of this visual failure in Degas' late work, weighing the conflicting issues of visual limitation versus a changing style as the artist aged.2 A decade ago, visual simulations were first constructed to show Degas' view of his late pastels,3 but the technique has never been applied to his sculptural work.

Degas' artistic options were increasingly limited by his failing vision as he grew older. There are obvious differences between the precisely drawn and shaded figures of the 1870s and 1880s, and the sketchy, largely unshaded, faceless subjects of his bathing and ballet scenes done after the turn of the twentieth century. It might seem plausible that Degas took on sculpture late in life as an alternative medium that is more forgiving with respect to detail and that would allow tactile sensations to replace visual ones. However, there are also good reasons for a very different interpretation. Degas began making sculpture early in his career when failing eyesight was not a factor in his work. And while his sculptural output may have increased in later years, he also continued to work in pastels and make portraits after 1900. Were these figurines meant as studies (as Degas reputedly said himself) or as independent works of art? Millard has argued that the smaller figures, mostly done in fragile wax, often reworked and never cast or sold, were the equivalent of sketches which played an important role in Degas' later life. Kendall and many others have emphasized the power of his late works, and his continuing struggle to find a better way of portraying his subjects.4

When an artist suffers visual loss, and when it can be estimated accurately on the basis of historical data, the effects can be simulated on a computer to match the progression of the disease.5 The technique has been used previously to show how Degas saw his pastels, and also to show Monet's loss of colour discrimination as a result of cataracts. Such demonstrations not only give art historical information, but also present a direct picture of what these artists were struggling with late in life and the constraints that poor vision put upon their work. The stylistic choices of an ageing artist are complex, and involve issues of aesthetics, economics, time, physical health and suppleness, but vision is also an important component of an artist's 'toolbox'. The purpose of this article is not to analyse Degas' technique, or to review scholarship on the dating of his sculpture. Rather, it is to demonstrate how visual simulations provide relatively objective information, not previously available to the art historian, about the capabilities of a visually impaired artist and about dating the artist's works. …

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