Art Review: Degas: Drawings and Sketchbooks

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Drive to Draw
Trumps Handicap

In all three of his books featuring old master drawings as instructional aides for depicting figures and learning artistic anatomy, Robert Beverly Hale (during his lifetime, a sought-after teacher at the Art Students League) included several examples from the hand of Edgar-Hilaire-Germaine Degas (1834-1917).  Hale singled out Degas’s “marvelous knowledge of anatomy”1 and explained that “[m]uch of Degas’ [sic] drawing is achieved by variety in the handling of his line and values.”2

From classically trained beginnings, Degas’s evolution as a draftsman took an unforeseen turn around 1870 when, while doing voluntary military service during the Franco-Prussian war, he began to experience visual problems.  Finding “bright lights intolerable,” he “was forced to work indoors in a controlled environment.”3

A few years later, during an extended visit with family in New Orleans, the artist resigned himself to permanent loss of visual acuity in his right eye.  Describing his affliction in a letter written during his travels to his friend and fellow artist James Tissot, Degas focused on what he still had rather than on what he had lost:

What lovely things I could have done, and done rapidly if the bright daylight were less unbearable for me.  To go to Louisiana to open one’s eyes, I cannot do that.  And yet I kept them sufficiently half open to see my fill.4

Added to his problems with glare, Degas soon began to suffer from a centrally located scotoma, a discreet area of impaired vision.  In an 1874 letter to Tissot he expressed his fear of going blind:

My eyes are fairly well but all the same I shall remain in the ranks of the infirm until I pass into the ranks of the blind.  It is really bitter, is it not?  Sometimes I feel a shiver of horror.5

From his forties onward, Degas persisted in creating art despite his partial blindness.  By age 57, he could no longer see well enough to read.  That year, in a letter to another friend, Degas complained:

I see even worse this winter, I do not even read the newspapers a little…Ah!  Sight!  Sight!  Sight!…the difficulty of seeing makes me feel numb.6

In Degas: Drawings and Sketchbooks at The Morgan Library & Museum, in a one-room exhibition displaying works on paper in oil and dry mediums mostly from Degas’s early years, only one suggested the radical stylistic changes necessitated by the encroaching blindness of his later years.  The 19 works on paper accompanied by two sketchbooks and some memorabilia, all from the museum’s own collection, demonstrate the skill with which this artist refined his observations to produce arresting images, some of which found their way into fully realized paintings.

Self-Portrait in a Brown Vest (1856, oil on paper, mounted on canvas).

Beginning with the typical student fare of self-portraits and a nude male study produced in his early 20s, the selection included the expected ballerina and racehorse pictures associated with Degas, and surprised with Ingres-inspired portraits of some friends.

Study of a Seated Woman (1868-69, oil paint thinned with turpentine, over graphite, on tan paper, mounted on canvas).

Two oil sketches, Study of a Seated Woman (1868-69) and Standing Man in a Bowler Hat (ca.1870), both done on tan paper, relate to a painting of a still undecipherable narrative dated around the same time.  Interior (Philadelphia Museum) depicts a woman seated in much the same way as that in the sketch and, on the other side of the room leaning with his back to the door, a man similar in attitude to that of the Standing Man.

In light of the approximate dating of Standing Man and its similarity of execution to the Seated Woman, it might represent one idea among many entertained by Degas before he settled on the final version.  In the study, the man looks down his nose.  In the painting, he glares at the woman turned away from him on the other side of the dimly-lit room.

Seated Dancer (ca. 1871, oil paint thinned with turpentine over pencil, on pink paper).

Still working with turpentine-thinned oil on toned paper, Degas turned his attention to the ballet, where the gas-lit interior of the Opéra provided intriguing effects and mitigated his problems with glare.  One of many preparatory studies for Dance Class at the Opéra on the Rue le Peletier (Musée d’Orsay), Seated Dancer (ca. 1871) exemplifies the artist’s drawing skill, knowledge of anatomy, and confident handling of paint.  With brilliant economy, he reserved the pink of the paper for the light on the dancer’s back, the shine on her satin shoes and the highlights on her skirt.  Her dangling neck ribbon defines the curve of her back.

Three Studies of a Dancer (ca. 1880, black chalk, Conte crayon [?], and pink chalk, heightened with white chalk, on blue paper faded to light brown).

In his late forties when he drew Three Studies of a Dancer (ca. 1880), Degas might have found working three-dimensionally a more manageable way to continue his investigations into the form and movement of bodies–dancing or at rest.  In this study, the artist depicted his model from three different views as a prelude to sculpting the well-known Little Dancer, Fourteen Years Old.

In rendering the dancer’s pose–hands clasped palms down behind the back–Degas carefully observed the rotation of the arms and movement of the shoulder blades, depicting the strain inherent in the awkward position.  Pentimenti around the far left foot reveals Degas’s design decision to make the foot visible from behind.

Landscape with Path Leading to a Copse of Trees (ca. 1890-92, pastel over monotype in thinned oil paint).

Over a decade later, when Degas executed Landscape with Path Leading to a Copse of Trees (ca. 1890-92), reading had become impossible for him.  This monotype, one of 50 he painted based on the countryside he observed during a trip to visit his friend, painter and printmaker Georges Jeanniot, eerily echoes how the world must look to someone with a scotoma in his central field of vision.7

With the medium of monotype, Degas could return to oil paints, which his failing vision had forced him to replace with the easier-to-handle pastels.  The process entailed “roughly indicat[ing] elements of the landscape with a brush” on a metal plate, then running “the plate through a press,” which produced a print that he could then “enhance with pastels.”8

In much the same way he did in his pastels of dancers and bathers of the 1890s, in Landscape with Path, Degas deftly deployed color accents and arranged the subject in an arresting composition.  Flowers dot the field, a path runs diagonally up to the right, creating a zigzag pattern where it meets the horizon line and takes the eye past the contrast of dark trees to the pink and blue sky beyond.

Despite his visual handicap, Degas gave the world enough paintings, pastels, prints and drawings to populate collections around the world and influence generations of artists.  Quite possibly, had he not suffered from a visual handicap, he might never have found his way to the daring work of his later years.

But then again, had his eyesight never faltered, with the added benefit of normal vision, combined with his expert draftsmanship, love of color, and always inquisitive mind, he might have evolved even more intriguing modes of expression.
1 Robert Beverly Hale, Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters, 1989, 244.

2 Robert Beverly Hale, Master Class in Figure Drawing, 1991, 59.

3 Eliana Coldham, et al., Art, Vision and the Disordered Eye, Vision and Aging Lab, Department of Psychology, University of Calgary (, 2002.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 See Retinopathy at

8 Explanatory text, The Morgan Library & Museum.

Degas: Drawings and Sketchbooks
The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016-3405