Always remembered as an Impressionist, Edgar Degas was a member of the seminal group of Paris artists who began to exhibit together in the 1870s. He shared many of their novel techniques, was intrigued by the challenge of capturing effects of light and attracted to scenes of urban leisure. But Degas’s academic training, and his own personal predilection toward Realism, set him apart from his peers, and he rejected the label ‘Impressionist’ preferring to describe himself as an ‘Independent.’ His inherited wealth gave him the comfort to find his own way, and later it also enabled him to withdraw from the Paris art world and sell pictures at his discretion. He was intrigued by the human figure, and in his many images of women – dancers, singers, and laundresses – he strove to capture the body in unusual positions. While critics of the Impressionists focused their attacks on their formal innovations, it was Degas’s lower-class subjects that brought him the most disapproval.
This portrait, with its subdued palette and its unconventional grouping of figures, such as the man having his back to the viewer, demonstrates the impact of Realism on the young Degas. He created it over the course of several trips to Italy, spanning 3-4 years. Each family member — his aunt, her husband and his two young cousins Giovanna and Giuliana — was sketched individually, and then organized into a family portrait, becoming more of a study of individual personalities than a study of them as a group.
Degas had the chance to spend much time with his aunt and her family, but it was not an altogether happy family. The aunt was disappointed in her husband, away from home, and mourning her father’s passing. So this early, breakthrough work is also a reflection on Degas’ (relatively limitted) experience in a family setting. Here, the father is suggested to be emotionally distant from his wife and daughters, while the mother stands dignified and decisive. Giovanna on the left is clearly the mother’s favored daughter, while Giuliana, with one leg poised, is positioned just so to suggest a division in her allegiance.
Oil on canvas – Musée d’Orsay, Paris
A Cotton Office in New Orleans (1873)
Like his earlier study of the Bellelli family, A Cotton Office in New Orleans is the result of several individual sketches and careful attention to detail over a length of time. In the center, reading a newspaper, is Degas’s brother, Rene, and in the foreground, somberly handling a ball of cotton, is Rene’s father-in-law, Michael Musson, who operated the cotton exchange. Its complex handling of deep space and multiple figures is testimony both to Degas’s skill in composition, and his love of striking perspectives, something that makes his work stand out from that of many of his peers among the Realists and Impressionists. He manages to knit together the fractured space by stretching areas of white across the center of the picture, letting our eye move from the cotton on the left, through the newspaper, to the shirt of the figure on the right.
Oil on canvas – Musée des Beaux-Arts, Pau
The Legacy of Edgar Degas
Although Degas suffered criticism during his lifetime, by the time of his death his reputation was secure as one of the leaders of late-19th-century French art. His distinct difference from the Impressionists, his greater tendency toward Realism, had also come to be appreciated. His standing has only increased since his death, though since the 1970s he was been the focus of a lot of scholarly attention and criticism, primarily focused around his images of women, which have been seen as misogynistic. Some have even compared his treatment of the other sex linked to his antisemitism and overall lack of moral compass.