It’s odd that a Denver Art Museum (DAM) exhibition showcasing the perfectionism of French painter Edgar Degas 100 years after his death proves to be such a refreshing respite—a step forward in …
This item is available in full to subscribers.
If you're a print subscriber, but do not yet have an online account, click here to create one.
Click here to see your options for becoming a subscriber.
If you made a voluntary contribution in 2022-2023 of $50 or more, but do not yet have an online account, click here to create one at no additional charge. VIP Digital Access includes access to all websites and online content.
It’s odd that a Denver Art Museum (DAM) exhibition showcasing the perfectionism of French painter Edgar Degas 100 years after his death proves to be such a refreshing respite—a step forward in the portrayal of women—from modern media’s barrage of “idealized” images that so few women resemble.
The dominant imagery of female perfection has been under attack for years as unrealistic and harmful to little and big girls’ psyches, yet the bombardment has barely slowed.
Edgar Degas, "Four Ballet Dancers On Stage," 1885-90, Oil paint on canvas, Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo. Courtesy photo.
Degas, a celebrated 19th century French Impressionist, is considered by art historians to be without peer at freezing the human form in a telling moment—especially women. Degas has been called the supreme painter of the ballet, traditionally a grueling and punishing arena for the female body.
Degas was also, among a long list of character flaws, unapologetically misogynistic. Misogyny is definitely not “in,” with modern practitioners scurrying like cockroaches from the light of the #MeToo movement. And there’s Time’s Up, a recent attempt to organize a counterattack on the sexual harassment, abuse and assault prevalent in so many industries. These themes all get a booster shot of attention during March, Women’s History Month in the U.S.
And yet this is a great time to view an exhibition of an artist who was an admitted chauvinist.
Degas’ work, devoid as it is of any sentimentality, shows us the raw, natural power of the feminine. And, despite the abundance of tutus, his work doesn’t seek to define or confine feminine beauty.
The Denver Art Museum is the only U.S. venue for the exhibition, “Degas: A Passion for Perfection,” which runs through May 20 and includes more than 100 artworks and a narrative examining his creative process and life. This exhibition was organized and first shown by the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England.
It is striking that several women given a recent preview of the DAM exhibition commented on the same thing: Degas’ subjects seem like real girls and women, stripped of any artificial glamor. “Degas’ works don’t idealize the ballet dancers or attempt to capture perfection in their form or movement,” writer Kimberly Field says.
Instead, the paintings and drawings—like an unposed photograph—convey facts about women. Degas appears to have dedicated himself to evoking the natural —even gritty—rather than the sublime. His brand of perfectionism lays in brilliantly seizing the fleeting moments that reveal women at their most unguarded—in conversation with a friend or pulling up her tights offstage.
Degas painted “the blood, sweat and tears that permeated the rehearsal rooms,” art historian John Richardson told Vanity Fair two decades ago.
“People call me the painter of dancing girls,” Degas said. “It has never occurred to them that my chief interest in dancers lies in rendering movement and painting pretty clothes.”
His words don’t ring as true as his art. You don’t come away from this exhibition remembering the pretty clothes. You remember the startlingly recognizable expressions and gestures of two women in fraught conversation in “At the Cafe” (1875-77).
You can’t forget the extreme, even confusing, awkwardness of the bather, not at all seductive, in “After the Bath” (1881). You admire the quiet competence and strength of “The Laundress Ironing” (1882).
The 1880 masterpiece “Dance Examination” depicts the scrutiny of a young dancer by two older women peering over her shoulder while a third ballerina takes critical stock of her own feet turned out in ballet’s second position. The pastel was described by Financial Times writer Rachel Spence at the Cambridge exhibition as “a festival of clandestine movements and furtive glances.”
The exhibition, which opened in mid-February, displays familiar masterpieces, such as “Three Women at the Races” (1885) and “Woman Scratching Her Back” (1881), in which a women strains—bent over her belly rolls—to get her hand on that itch. Degas, who never married and was considered celibate, obsessively painted women’s fleshy backs. But then he also repeatedly painted women ironing and visited other select subjects, such as horse race scenes, over and over.
Timothy Standring, Gates Family Foundation Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the DAM, says the exhibition reveals the creative process of an artist who revisited the same subjects but was endlessly inventive and innovative with technique and material.
The review of the Cambridge exhibition in the Financial Times said it offered “insight rather than simply adulation” of Degas. The same could be said of Degas’ painting, sculptures and sketches with regard to women.
“I have perhaps too often considered woman as an animal,” an elderly Degas told another painter. “Women can never forgive me; they hate me, they can feel that I am disarming them. I show them without their coquetry, in the state of animals cleaning themselves.”
Somehow, at least for now, this unwavering gaze of Degas is a truer way of seeing girls and women than “the gilding of the lily” we see in most contemporary media. The lovely harshness of his scenes does women more justice than all the airbrushing done in all of the photoshopping out there.
Degas propels us into a different conundrum. His personal failings are hard to ignore, especially as gripped as society is right now by the dilemma of loathing misdeeds against women by contemporary artists and actors, while still admiring the body of work. Degas was by most biographical accounts a very unsympathetic and bitter man, a self-proclaimed misogynist and avowed anti-Semite. But 100 years after his death, we don’t want to live without his work.
“Degas: A Passion for Perfection” is a special ticketed exhibition that includes a complimentary audio guide. For ticket information, visit denverartmuseum.org.
We have noticed you are using an ad blocking plugin in your browser.
The revenue we receive from our advertisers helps make this site possible. We request you whitelist our site.