Degas: A Passion for Perfection marks the centenary of Degas’s death on September 27, 1917. Clever acquisitions and more than one dose of good fortune has allowed the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge to build up exceptional holdings of Degas’s works in paintings, drawings, pastels, prints and sculpture (it owns the only original sculptures by Degas in Britain).
As any museum director will affirm, timing as much as acumen plays a crucial role in determining the quality of a public collection. Degas died as the German army threatened once more to advance on Paris, which may explain why his heirs lost no time in emptying out his studio and putting its vast contents up for auction. Alerted to this sudden and unexpected opportunity by the painter and art critic Roger Fry, Charles Holmes, director of the National Gallery in London, and the economist John Maynard Keynes, persuaded the Treasury in a “whirlwind” of negotiations to hand over £20,000 to place bids on behalf of the nation.
The first sale at the Galerie Georges Petit featured Degas’s own art collection. Keynes, an overnight convert to the art of collecting, also bought for himself, successfully bidding on Cézanne’s Still-Life with Apples, c1877-8 (now part of the Keynes Collection owned by the Provost and Fellows of King’s College, Cambridge, and on long-term loan to the Fitzwilliam). Keynes went on to buy several magnificent Degas drawings of nudes which alone make the trip to Cambridge worthwhile.
Curator Jane Munroe has organised the exhibition in a way that not only makes the most of the museum’s own collections of works by artists other than Degas – Corot and Thomas Jones, for example – but above all encourages us to see Degas as an artist obsessed. A regular visitor to ballet classes at the Opéra, to the seedy Paris brothels, theatres and gas-lit cafés, Degas preyed on city life, tracking it as ruthlessly as a paparazzo.
Degas’s other obsession was with the art of the past. As a student at the École des Beaux-Arts, he copied the old masters, not merely as an exercise but with the consuming passion and curiosity that would lead him endlessly to experiment, to rethink and re-imagine every aspect of his art. His respect for the past, for instance, may explain his choice of the dancer as one of his most thoroughly explored themes.
In her essay published in the excellent catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, Jill De Vonyar describes how the dance gurus of the time “insisted that the origins of ballet could be traced back to antiquity and described modern ballerinas as the progeny of Terpsichore, the goddess of music and dance”. As Degas wrestled again and again with his wax models, recording the gravity-defying movements demanded of the dancer, he must have been aware of this contemporary view of the origins of classical ballet.
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