Degas and the Nude debuts at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, this fall

  • BOSTON, Massachusetts
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  • August 11, 2011

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Edgar Degas, After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Neck, 1886-95, Musée d'Orsay
Image Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The first museum exhibition devoted exclusively to the extraordinary range of nudes by Edgar Degas—tracing their evolution from the artist’s early years, through the private and public images of brothels and bathers in the 1870s and 1880s, to the post-Impressionist nudes of the end of his career—will be presented by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), and the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Degas and the Nude, on view October 9, 2011, through February 5, 2012, at the MFA, will offer a groundbreaking examination of Degas’s concept of the human body during the course of 50 years by showing his work within the broader context of his forebears, contemporaries, and followers in 19th-century France, among them Ingres, Delacroix, Cassatt, Caillebotte, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse, and Picasso.

Edgar Degas, Dancer Looking at the Sole of her Right Foot, modeled between 1896-1911, cast between 1921-31, Musée d'Orsay
Image courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Assembled from the collections of more than 50 lenders from around the world are approximately 165 works—145 by Degas—including paintings, pastels, drawings, monotypes, etchings, lithographs, and sculptures, many of which have never been on view in the United States. After its debut in the MFA’s Ann and Graham Gund Gallery—its only US venue—Degas and the Nude will be shown at the Musée d’Orsay from March 12–July 1, 2012. Presentation of the exhibition in Boston is made possible by Bank of America. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The 19th-century French artist Edgar Degas (1834–1917), a founding member of the Impressionist group who gravitated toward realism, is acclaimed for his mastery of a wide range of genres, which he executed in all media using a variety of techniques. In addition to his famous depictions of ballet dancers or racing subjects, Degas’s work also included history paintings, portraits, landscapes, and scenes of urban leisure. This exhibition, however, will focus entirely on his nudes, illustrating the transformation of Degas’s treatment of the human form throughout half a century—from early life drawings in the 1850s, to overtly sexual imagery, to gritty realist nudes, and beyond to the lyrical and dynamic bodies of the last decade of his working life when the theme dominated his artistic production in all media.

“Degas and the Nude will be a revelation for our visitors. It will offer a number of surprises—for instance, we’ll reunite several of Degas’s black-and-white monotypes with the corresponding pastel ‘twins’ for the first time since they left the artist’s studio,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA. “Visitors will see the progression of his nudes and the very heart of Degas’s fascination with the body and its range of emotion and movement. He pursued that fascination in portraits, and above all in images of dancers, but in the nude we see the body in its purest form…through Degas’s eye and imagination.”

Edgar Degas, La Toilette, 1884-86, Private Collection
Image courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Degas and the Nude draws from some of the finest collections in the world. In addition to the MFA and Musée d’Orsay—the single largest lender, with more than 60 works—these include the National Gallery and Courtauld Gallery, London; the Musée Andre Malraux, Le Havre; museums and private collections in Germany, Japan, and Switzerland; as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among many other museums and private collections in North America.

The exhibition will feature such masterpieces as Young Spartans Exercising (1860-62, National Gallery, London) and Scene of War in the Middle Ages (1863–65, Musée d’Orsay, Paris), two of Degas’s greatest history paintings; and The Tub (about 1886, Musée d’Orsay), a pastel completed at the height of his career and presented at the last Impressionist exhibition in 1886. It will also offer context to this exploration of the artist’s nudes by juxtaposing his works with those created by major artists who influenced—or were influenced by—Degas, including Ingres’s Angelica Saved by Ruggiero (1819-39, National Gallery, London), Caillebotte’s Man at his Bath (1884, Private Collection), and Picasso’s Nude on a Red Background (1906, Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris).

More than three years in the making, Degas and the Nude was conceived by George T.M. Shackelford, Chair, Art of Europe and Arthur K. Solomon Curator of Modern Art at the MFA, who co-organized the exhibition with Xavier Rey, Curator of Paintings, Musée d'Orsay. “Our project explores how Degas exploited all of the body’s expressive possibilities,” Shackelford said. “It shows how his personal vision of the nude informed his notion of modernity, and how he abandoned the classical or historical form in favor of a figure seen in her own time and setting, whether engaged in shockingly carnal acts or just stepping out of an ordinary bath.”

“The first works by Degas to enter the collections of the French State were pastels of nudes bequeathed to the nation by Gustave Caillebotte in 1894,” said Xavier Rey, exhibition co-curator. “In the ensuing century, the Musée d’Orsay has become the world’s greatest repository of Degas’s depictions of the nude—in paintings, pastels, drawings, and sculpture. We take pride in co-organizing this major international project, which will be one of the important exhibitions in Paris in 2012.”

Degas and the Nude is organized into six sections, which will explore:
• Degas’s earliest nudes, from about 1855 to 1862
• The artist’s early masterwork, Scene of War in the Middle Ages, and the studies that preceded it
• Brothel monotypes Degas executed in the latter half of the 1870s
• Transformation of Degas’s brothel imagery to scenes of daily life
• Select works from the artist’s key years of 1884–86
• Degas’s last years as an artist, from about 1890 to 1905

The exhibition will begin with a selection of the artist’s first nudes, including Study of Michelangelo’s Bound Slave (1855–60, Private Collection), one of Degas’s many studies of works by Renaissance artists that he made in Paris or in Italy, where he drew from live models at Rome’s French Academy. Many life studies and paintings created as part of this early academic training will be on display, as well as drawings made for early figural compositions, culminating in the painting Young Spartans Exercising (1860–62, National Gallery, London), a depiction of girls beckoning or taunting a group of boys, with the landscape of ancient Sparta as a background.

One of Degas’s most notable works incorporating nudes, the history painting Scene of War in the Middle Ages, will be the focal point of the second section of the exhibition. The often overlooked masterpiece was the first work Degas exhibited at the official Salon in 1865. It will offer an early view of some of the many poses the artist would repeat throughout his career. Complementing it will be more than a dozen of the studies that preceded it, as well as works by other artists who exerted an influence on Degas in the conception and elaboration of the painting, such as Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), whose Angelica Saved by Ruggiero will be displayed along with a masterwork by Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863): The Death of Sardanapalus (1844, Philadelphia Museum of Art). These two French masters, as well as artists such as Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828) and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898), provided inspiration for the young Degas. Two paintings by Degas from the later 1860s also will be shown: Interior (The Rape) (1868–69, Philadelphia Museum of Art) and Peasant Girls Bathing in the Sea at Dusk (about 1869, revised later, Private Collection).

The exhibition’s third section will be devoted to the brothel monotypes that Degas executed in the latter half of the 1870s—images that are at times caricature-like, ironic, pornographic, or even unexpectedly tender. These often sexually explicit scenes depict women in brothels: waiting for clients, as in The Reluctant Client (1876-77, National Gallery of Canada), and engaging in sexual acts, as in Two Women (1876–77, MFA). Most of these works are relatively small in scale, made as drawings using brush and greasy ink on metal plates, which were then printed to yield one proof (“mono-type”); sometimes a second, fainter, impression was taken. The monotypes were occasionally touched with pastel; some—more often the second impressions—were completely covered with color to become small pictures, ready for sale or gift.

The evolution of Degas’s nudes will continue in a following section, shifting from overtly sexual imagery to the everyday, “naturalist” nudes, as seen in the artist’s spontaneous views of ordinary, seemingly unposed women at various stages of undress or performing “la toilette”—bathing, drying, or grooming themselves. These monotypes will highlight the emergence of the bather as a central theme in Degas’s art—one that he would explore from the middle of the 1880s until the end of his career. Many of these later monotypes were made in a way that differed from the first ones, showing the artist’s interest in exploring a variety of techniques and materials. Rather than painting his image with a brush, Degas inked the entire plate and “pulled” the image out of the ink with selective wiping and scraping. In this section, some monotypes will be united with their corresponding pastels for what is believed to be the first time. These include the monotype Woman in a Bathtub (about 1850–85, Private Collection), and the pastel over monotype Woman in Her Bath, Sponging her Leg (1883–84, Musée d’Orsay). Other pastels and oil paintings will be featured here, as well as comparisons to the work of Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844–1926), Woman Bathing (1890–91, The Metropolitan Museum of Art), and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901), La Toilette (Rousse) (1889, Musée d’Orsay). The section will culminate in a group of large-scale oil paintings by Degas and his friends Gustave Caillbotte (1848–1894) and Henri Gervex (1852–1929), made between the years 1878 and about 1884.

Works from a pivotal time in Degas’s career, 1884–86, will be examined in section five of the exhibition. Two examples, The Tub (1885–86, Musée d’Orsay) and Woman Dressing Herself (1885–86, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC) were included in the last Impressionist exhibition, held in Paris in the spring of 1886. In addition, comparative paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Woman Combing Her Hair (1882–83, Private Collection), and Puvis de Chavannes, Young Woman at Her Toilette (1883, Musée d’Orsay), will be displayed, as well as works from the late 1880s that expand upon those created a few years earlier. Also included will be the sculpture The Tub (Musée d’Orsay, 1889 modeled, cast 1920–21), cast in bronze after the artist’s death.

Degas and the Nude will conclude with an exploration of Degas’s last years as an artist, from about 1890 to 1905. “During this period, Degas is focused almost exclusively on the bather, with the exception of a few great drawings and sculptures depicting dancers. His color sense grows bolder, and as he nears the end of the 1890s, his painting and drawing technique become more experimental and, likewise, more bold,” explained Shackelford. “Influences of such artists as Gauguin and Rodin are felt in his painted compositions and sculpture. Sinuous lines, sensual hatchings, delicate blending and shading, and large scale mark his later charcoal drawings of bathers, among the most accomplished sheets in his career, and a radical departure from the carefully rendered nudes of 1855–1865.” Featured here will be the largest single grouping in the exhibition, which will showcase Degas’s masterpieces, After the Bath (about 1896, Philadelphia Museum of Art) and After the Bath (1895-1900, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC). In addition, to illustrate Degas’s influence on the next generation of great artists, paintings by Degas will be juxtaposed with those by Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947), Henry Matisse (1889–1954), and Pablo Picasso (1881–1973). In the context of Degas’s great nudes of the 1890s, Bonnard’s Indolence (1899, Musée d’Orsay), Matisse’s Carmelina (1903, MFA), and Picasso’s Nude on a Red Background (1906, Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris) take on new meaning, as masterworks by the youthful standard-bearers of Degas’s post-Impressionist style in a new century.

CATALOGUE INFORMATION
Degas and the Nude (MFA Publications, October 2011) is the first book in a generation to explore the artist’s treatment of the nude from his early years in the 1850s and 1860s, through his triumphs in the 1880s and 1890s, all the way to the last decades of his working career. It aims to provide a comprehensive interpretation of Degas’s evolving conception of the nude and to situate it in the subject’s broader context among his peers in 19th-century France. The 336-page book by co-curators George T.M. Shackelford, Chair, Art of Europe and Solomon Curator of Modern Art at the MFA, and Xavier Rey, Curator of Paintings, Musée d'Orsay, features essays by them and contributions by the painter Lucien Freud with author Martin Gayford, and by Orsay curator Anne Roquebert. More than 200 color images present a new look at Degas’s subject in paintings, pastels, drawings, prints, and sculptures. The price is $65 (hardcover) and $45 (softcover). Degas and the Nude will be available in the Museum’s three shops and online at www.mfa.org/publications. The exhibition catalogue was given generous support by the Andrew W. Mellon Publications Fund and Scott and Isabelle Black.

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