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Episode 4: Edgar Degas' "Duchessa di Montejasi with Her Daughters, Elena and Camilla" (c. 1876)

So, a caveat about this one: This is one of my favorite paintings at the MFA.

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I mean, why, right? 

Nobody comes to the museum to see this painting.  It’s the kind of dreary domestic scene that’s only valuable because someone famous painted it, that fills the space and rounds out a collection, but in an always a bridesmaid kind of way. 

Look at it: This dour old lady, who is Degas’, I kid you not, “Aunt Fanny”, dressed in black, sits like a sack of potatoes in an off-balance composition, staring at us like we’ve gotten in her way, while her daughters sit off to the side, looking like they were painted in as an afterthought.  The corners look unfinished, the dresses look unfinished, and you’re pretty much overwhelmed with black and judgement.  This is the painting that stands between you and Monet’s Rouen Cathedral or Renoir’s Dance at Bougeval, which, let’s face it, are the paintings you came for.  So why do we care?  Why should we care?

Because this is one of the best examples of how Impressionism is the gateway to Modernism that the museum has, that’s why.  

First things first, let’s talk about Degas, and let’s contextualize him in the Impressionist gallery.  If you’re standing in the middle of the gallery right now, you can do this in real time, but otherwise, let me paint the scene: if you turn all the way around, every wall in the gallery is hung with paintings that pretty much share the same palette: pastels, pinks and blues and greens and purples, the Monet wall all dappled light, the Renoir wall all rosy cheeks.  Most of them are landscape scenes or bourgeoisie Parisians gallivanting outdoors.  And then you get to the black, interior, bummer Degas wall, and it seems like he totally missed the memo.

Degas didn’t call himself an Impressionist, though.  He never planned on being one, and would probably resent the hell out of all the art history textbooks that grouped him with them.  It’s true that he exhibited with them, because his work was just as radical as theirs, but he considered himself a Realist in the tradition of Courbet and Manet, revolutionary artists a generation before the Impressionists, who looked at the world with the original, actual no filter: they painted the “unvarnished truth” the frank, “warts and all” reality of the world that hadn’t really been done before. 

We see wrinkles, we see workers, we see yawning and scratching and ballerinas backstage at their rehearsals.  We see girls as awkward adolescents and aunts with unflattering jowls.   All of the literature describes this portrait of his aunt as being painted “without flattery.”  Her hands and face are given the most detailed attention, along with her wedding ring, which explains the black – they’re in mourning over the Duchess’ husband, Degas’ uncle.  We empathize with her because she is so specific.  We relate to what makes her real, which is exactly what Degas, being a Realist, is trying to accomplish.  And this cements him firmly as an avant garde artist of the mid-19th century.  Already, just looking at Aunt Fanny, this painting is a distinctive product of its time.

But it gets better.  Because we can actually watch the century evolve as we turn our attention to Aunt Fanny’s daughters.  If Realism is reflecting the unvarnished truth of the world as it is happening, Impressionism, which Degas couldn’t help but engage in a little, takes that further by incorporating the technology of the day as well, often folded into the subject matter, and, here, the painting technique. 

 David,  Oath of the Horatii  (1784)

David, Oath of the Horatii (1784)

Look at Aunt Fanny.  She sits in the perfect pyramidal shape, the very definition of proper painterly composition.  Impressionists and Realists couldn’t be avant garde without an establishment, which was, in the mid-19th century, large didactic history paintings.  These were huge, pristinely painted narratives with clear, tight compositions.  The action would be illuminated with a clear light source, so there’s no doubt in the viewer’s mind as to what part of the narrative they’re supposed to be paying attention to, and your eyes are meant to sweep fluidly around a triangular pyramid.  Take a second and Google David’s Oath of the Horatii and you’ll see what I’m talking about.  Degas mirrors this composition when he paints his aunt: realistic and wrinkled as she is, Aunt Fanny is part of the old guard.  But her daughters aren’t.  And Degas shows this through three deliberate breaches of painterly convention: they’re blurred, they’re cut off on the sides, and they’re barely acknowledging us.  In other words, they photobombed the portrait of their mother.

The camera was developed in the 1830s and had come into more popular use in the 1860s and 70s.  While the jury was still out as to whether a photographer could ever be an artist in the traditional sense of the word – and not just a manual operator of a device – artists suddenly had at their disposal something that captured exactness.  Think about how radical that must have been.  What was the point of painting anymore?  Western art since the Renaissance had aspired to being “a window onto the world”, so what now?  This is when artists begin to experiment heavily with technique, because they’re finally allowed the treat a canvas for what it is – a flat, two-dimensional object.  The gig is up: there’s no harm in showing brushstrokes now, we can’t pretend a human hand didn’t create this depth and dimension.  So while the camera effectively released the shackles to painterly convention, what’s more – and this is the cool part – painting started incorporating elements of photography into its composition.  Hence two painted figures who appears to have gotten halfway stuck in the frame.

We all have experience with the unexpected getting caught in our photos, things accidentally getting cut off, and it’s annoying – why would a painter, who doesn’t just capture the world, he creates it, choose to do that deliberately?  Because he is actually painting a snapshot.  Impressionists are known for capturing the immediacy and ephemera of light, but many of them were actually just as interested in capturing the ephemera of human experience – again, the yawns, the backstage moments, the scratching.  Life being lived in real time.  Degas isn’t using painting to tell a narrative story, but to capture a moment.  And what’s more, we’re in it.  We, as the viewers, are being vaguely acknowledged by the daughters, and we are being told that if we turn our heads and look away, when we look back, they will have moved.  Degas actually smeared his own fingers into the paint to blur them and give them a sense of movement.  There is an utter immediacy to them that is completely lacking in their stodgy old mom.  She’s not going anywhere.  She’s sitting for a portrait, thank you very much.

This painting is telling us so much.  It’s capturing the generational divide between Degas’ aunt and her daughters.  It’s capturing Degas’ relationship with his aunt, and his cousins’ relationship to him – his aunt sees him as an artist – which means that we are viewers; but his cousins see him as a cousin, they can choose to acknowledge him or not, which makes us…what, exactly?  Intruders into a moment, maybe worth their attention?  And meanwhile he sees his aunt as an old woman in mourning, not just a sitter for a portrait.  What he wants to capture, the story he wants to tell, trumps what she might want captured, which speaks to where portraiture was going to evolve as artists exercised more and more of their own subjectivity.  If she were calling the shots, I guarantee you that this would be a very different painting indeed. 

We see in real time how 19th century art was shaped by its context, how it was changing at the pace of technology, and how a few artists actually had their fingers on the pulse of this change.  It is the past, present, and future of painting all in one tidy domestic scene. 

And you walked right by it.