Saturday, April 4

Learning from the Past (Degas)

Ultimately, museums are for learning. This is why I love to see people sketching in galleries, learning techniques, observing lines, motion, form.

While visiting the Norton Simon last week, a woman brought in three girls and sat them down in front of this Degas painting with their sketch books. They diligently set to work recreating the lithe dancers that Degas loved so dearly.

Silently they scribbled away, appreciating the painting from the perspective of creator rather than passive observer.

I bet Degas never imagined that young girls would stand before his art, essentially turning him into the subject rather than the observer. Learning from the very man that would have, if given the chance, stripped them down and made them his models.

In another time I imagine the standing girl in the gallery could have been sketched by Degas. She is of about the same age as many of his subjects, most notably his famous bronze of the fourteen year old ballet dancer.

Beautiful as she is, she is not without controversy. The model for this sculpture was Marie van Goethem, a fourteen year old orphan who was brought into Degas' studio and made to pose naked for him. Degas would have been forty seven at the time. I can't imagine she was comfortable with the situation. Little else is known about Marie after her modeling period.

This sculpture was not well liked in Degas' time, though not because his model was a minor, that was actually common practice. Additionally, it was not uncommon for wealthy men like Degas to take young dancers as their mistresses, though there is no evidence that Marie became that for Degas; Paris was seedy, no doubt about it.

The most common critique about this sculpture is best expressed by J.K. Huysman. "The terrible reality of this statuette evidently produces uneasiness in the spectators; all their notions about sculpture, about those cold inanimate whitenesses ... are here overturned. The fact is that with his first attempt Monsieur Degas has revolutionized the traditions of sculpture as he has long since shaken the conventions of painting."

Scandalous indeed.

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