Jul 192018
 

Today is the birthday (1834) of Edgar Degas, born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas, a French artist who is now mostly remembered for his paintings of dancers. He is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism, although he rejected the term, preferring to be called a realist. I will begin by saying that Degas was, by contemporary accounts of him, a thoroughly unpleasant man. I’ll get into details in the body of the post.  For now, I will content myself with saying that if I rejected posts on all famous creative people who led hideous personal lives, my writing would be a great deal slimmer.

Degas was born in Paris, France, into a moderately wealthy family. He was the oldest of five children of Célestine Musson De Gas, a Creole from New Orleans, Louisiana, and Augustin De Gas, a banker. His maternal grandfather Germain Musson, was born in Port-au-Prince in Haiti of French descent and had settled in New Orleans in 1810. Degas (he adopted this less grandiose spelling of his family name when he became an adult) began his schooling at age 11, enrolling in the Lycée Louis-le-Grand. His mother died when he was 13, and his father and grandfather became the main influences on him for the remainder of his youth.

Degas began to paint early in life. By the time he graduated from the Lycée with a baccalauréat in 1853, at age 18, he had turned a room in his home into an artist’s studio. Upon graduating, he registered as a copyist in The Louvre Museum, but his father expected him to go to law school. Degas duly enrolled at the Faculty of Law of the University of Paris in November 1853, but put little effort to his studies. In 1855 he met Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, whom Degas revered and whose advice he never forgot: “Draw lines, young man, and still more lines, both from life and from memory, and you will become a good artist.” In April of that year Degas was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts. He studied drawing there with Louis Lamothe, under whose guidance he flourished, following the style of Ingres. In July 1856, Degas traveled to Italy, where he remained for the next three years. In 1858, while staying with his aunt’s family in Naples, he made the first studies for his early masterpiece The Bellelli Family. He also drew and painted numerous copies of works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and other Renaissance artists, but—contrary to conventional practice—he usually selected from an altarpiece a detail that had caught his attention: a secondary figure, or a head which he treated as a portrait.

Upon his return to France in 1859, Degas moved into a Paris studio large enough to permit him to begin painting The Bellelli Family—an imposing canvas he intended for exhibition in the Salon, although it remained unfinished until 1867. He also began work on several history paintings: Alexander and Bucephalus and The Daughter of Jephthah in 1859–60; Sémiramis Building Babylon in 1860; and Young Spartans around 1860. In 1861 Degas visited his childhood friend Paul Valpinçon in Normandy, and made the earliest of his many studies of horses. He exhibited at the Salon for the first time in 1865, when the jury accepted his painting Scene of War in the Middle Ages, which attracted little attention. Although he exhibited annually in the Salon during the next five years, he submitted no more history paintings, and his Steeplechase—The Fallen Jockey (Salon of 1866) signaled his growing commitment to contemporary subject matter. The change in his art was influenced primarily by the example of Édouard Manet, whom Degas had met in 1864 (while both were copying the same Velázquez portrait in the Louvre, according to a story that may be apocryphal).

Upon the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Degas enlisted in the National Guard, where his defense of Paris left him little time for painting. During rifle training his eyesight was found to be defective, and for the rest of his life his eye problems were a constant worry to him. After the war, Degas began (in 1872) an extended stay in New Orleans, Louisiana, where his brother René and a number of other relatives lived. Staying at the home of his Creole uncle, Michel Musson, on Esplanade Avenue, Degas produced a number of works, many depicting family members. One of Degas’s New Orleans works, A Cotton Office in New Orleans, garnered favorable attention back in France, and was his only work purchased by a museum (the Pau) during his lifetime.

Degas returned to Paris in 1873 and his father died the following year, whereupon Degas learned that his brother René had amassed enormous business debts. To preserve his family’s reputation, Degas sold his house and an art collection he had inherited, and used the money to pay off his brother’s debts. Dependent for the first time in his life on sales of his artwork for income, he produced much of his greatest work during the decade beginning in 1874. Disenchanted by now with the Salon, he instead joined a group of young artists who were organizing an independent exhibiting society. The group soon became known as the Impressionists. Between 1874 and 1886 they mounted eight art shows, known as the Impressionist Exhibitions. Degas took a leading role in organizing the exhibitions, and showed his work in all but one of them, despite his persistent conflicts with others in the group. He had little in common with Monet and the other landscape painters in the group, whom he mocked for painting outdoors. He abhorred the scandal created by the exhibitions, as well as the publicity and advertising that his colleagues sought. He also deeply disliked being associated with the term “Impressionist”, which the press had coined and popularized, and insisted on including non-Impressionist artists such as Jean-Louis Forain and Jean-François Raffaëlli in the group’s exhibitions. The resulting rancor within the group contributed to its disbanding in 1886.

Technically, Degas differs from the Impressionists in that he continually belittled their practice of painting “en plein air.” He wrote:

You know what I think of people who work out in the open. If I were the government I would have a special brigade of gendarmes to keep an eye on artists who paint landscapes from nature. Oh, I don’t mean to kill anyone; just a little dose of bird-shot now and then as a warning.

Mlle. Fiocre in the Ballet La Source, exhibited in the Salon of 1868, was his first major work to introduce dancers as a subject with which he would become especially identified. In many subsequent paintings dancers were shown backstage or in rehearsal, emphasizing their status as professionals doing a job. From 1870 Degas increasingly painted ballet subjects, partly because they sold well and provided him with needed income after his brother’s debts had left the family bankrupt.

As his financial situation improved through sales of his own work, he was able to indulge his passion for collecting works by artists he admired: old masters such as El Greco and contemporaries such as Manet, Pissarro, Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Édouard Brandon. Three artists he idolized, Ingres, Delacroix, and Daumier, were especially well represented in his collection. In the late 1880s, Degas also developed a passion for photography. He photographed many of his friends, often by lamplight, as in his double portrait of Renoir and Mallarmé.

Renoir and Mallarmé

Other photographs, depicting dancers and nudes, were used for reference in some of Degas’s drawings and paintings. He also photographed individuals and family groupings.

Over the years Degas became more and more isolated, due in part to his belief that a painter should have no personal life.  He wrote, “the artist must live alone, and his private life must remain unknown.” In company he was known for his wit, which could often be cruel. He was characterized as an “old curmudgeon” by the novelist George Moore, and he deliberately cultivated his reputation as a misanthropic bachelor. His argumentative nature was deplored by Renoir, who said of him: “What a creature he was, that Degas! All his friends had to leave him; I was one of the last to go, but even I couldn’t stay till the end.”

Self Portrait

Degas was profoundly conservative in his political opinions. He opposed all social reforms and found little to admire in such technological advances as the telephone. He fired a model upon learning she was Protestant. Although Degas painted a number of Jewish subjects from 1865 to 1870, his anti-Semitism became apparent by the mid-1870s. His 1879 painting Portraits at the Stock Exchange is widely regarded as anti-Semitic, with the facial features of the banker taken directly from the anti-Semitic cartoons rampant in Paris at the time. The Dreyfus Affair, which divided Paris from the 1890s to the early 1900s, further intensified his anti-Semitism. By the mid-1890s, he had broken off relations with all of his Jewish friends, publicly disavowed his previous friendships with Jewish artists, and refused to use models who he believed might be Jewish. He remained an outspoken anti-Semite and member of the anti-Semitic “Anti-Dreyfusards” until his death.

Although he is known to have been working in pastel as late as the end of 1907, and is believed to have continued making sculptures as late as 1910, he apparently ceased working in 1912, when the impending demolition of his longtime residence on the rue Victor Massé forced him to move to quarters on Boulevard de Clichy. He never married and spent the last years of his life, nearly blind, restlessly wandering the streets of Paris before dying in September 1917. He was buried in the family vault in Montmartre cemetery.

Degas’s only showing of sculpture during his life took place in 1881 when he exhibited The Little Dancer of Fourteen Years. A nearly life-size wax figure with real hair and dressed in a cloth tutu, it provoked a strong reaction from critics, most of whom found its realism extraordinary but denounced the dancer as ugly. In a review, J.-K. Huysmans wrote: “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.”

Degas created a substantial number of other sculptures during a span of four decades, but they remained unseen by the public until a posthumous exhibition in 1918. Neither The Little Dancer of Fourteen Years nor any of Degas’s other sculptures were cast in bronze during his lifetime. Degas scholars have agreed that the sculptures were not created as aids to painting, although the artist habitually explored ways of linking graphic art and oil painting, drawing and pastel, sculpture and photography. Degas assigned the same significance to sculpture as to drawing: “Drawing is a way of thinking, modelling another”.

After Degas’s death, his heirs found 150 wax sculptures in his studio, many in disrepair. They consulted foundry owner Adrien Hébrard, who concluded that 74 of the waxes could be cast in bronze. It is assumed that, except for the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, all Degas bronzes worldwide are cast from surmoulages (i.e., cast from bronze masters). A surmoulage bronze is a bit smaller, and shows less surface detail, than its original bronze mold. The Hébrard Foundry cast the bronzes from 1919 until 1936, and closed down in 1937, shortly before Hébrard’s death.

Parisian café food in general would work to celebrate the life of Degas because he is known to have frequented both cheap and expensive cafés in Paris, although what he ate is not recorded. One of my favorites is steak tartare, so I will maunder on about that delicacy for a bit. First a STERN WARNING. Classic steak tartare uses raw beef and raw egg, both of which can be vectors for crippling, even lethal, diseases. You must be fully confident in your sources before eating either, and I cannot recommend them publicly. Chefs in France use hand chopped beef, not ground, so that they are sure that the meat does not pick up contaminants from the meat grinder. They also have to be scrupulous about the sources of both their beef and eggs.

I have eaten steak tartare in numerous restaurants in France (and elsewhere), and have made it myself. It is one of my favorite dishes. I had it first at a cast party in Australia for a play I was in at age 11, and have enjoyed it ever since. The two photos below give you the basic idea.

You will be served with the hand cut beef on a platter with a raw egg yolk on top, and in addition will be given a choice of things to add. Standard are chopped cornichons, chopped green onion, and capers, plus sauces of one sort or another, as well as salt and pepper. You might also get freshly chopped onions or shallots, anchovies, lemon, and Dijon mustard. Your job is to mix in what you prefer, stir it all together really well, and then heap the mixture on toasted bread slices. Yum. It is remarkably filling.

Jan 122018
 

Today is the birthday (1856) of John Singer Sargent, called an “American” artist because his parents were U.S. citizens, but he actually spent almost none of his life in North America. In his day he was considered by many to be the leading portrait painter of his generation, but subsequently his work tended to be overlooked because the portraiture he is best known for was, for a long time, considered rather old fashioned for the period, and place, he worked in, which was known more for Impressionism. Interest in his work increased in the late 20th century as his oeuvre was explored more fully, and it became evident that it is much more varied than is known by the general public (or at least those who care at all).

Before Sargent’s birth, his father, FitzWilliam, was an eye surgeon at the Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia from 1844 to 1854. After John’s older sister died at the age of two, his mother, Mary, suffered a mental breakdown, and the couple decided to go abroad to help her recover. They remained nomadic expatriates for the rest of their lives. Although based in Paris, Sargent’s parents moved regularly with the seasons to the sea and the mountain resorts in France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. While Mary was pregnant with John, they stopped in Florence to avoid a cholera epidemic, and Sargent was born there in 1856. A year later, his sister Mary was born. After her birth, FitzWilliam reluctantly resigned his post in Philadelphia and accepted his wife’s preference for them to remain abroad. They lived modestly on a small inheritance and savings, living a quiet life with their children. They generally avoided society and other U.S. citizens except for friends in the art world. The couple had 4 more children, two of whom died in childhood.

Sargent’s mother was convinced that traveling around Europe, and visiting museums and churches, would give young Sargent a satisfactory education. Several attempts to have him formally schooled failed, owing mostly to their itinerant life. Sargent’s mother was a fine amateur artist and his father was a skilled medical illustrator. Early on, she gave him sketchbooks and encouraged drawing excursions. Young Sargent worked with care on his drawings, and he enthusiastically copied images from The Illustrated London News of ships and made detailed sketches of landscapes. FitzWilliam had hoped that his son’s interest in ships and the sea might lead him toward a naval career.

At 13, his mother reported that, “John sketches quite nicely, & has a remarkably quick and correct eye. If we could afford to give him really good lessons, he would soon be quite a little artist.” Around that time, he received some watercolor lessons from Carl Welsch, a German landscape painter. His formal schooling was rather erratic, but Sargent turned into a well-educated young man, accomplished in art, music, and literature. He was fluent in French, Italian, and German. At 17, Sargent was described as “willful, curious, determined and strong, yet shy, generous, and modest.” He was well-acquainted with many of the great masters from first hand observation, and wrote in 1874, “I have learned in Venice to admire Tintoretto immensely and to consider him perhaps second only to Michelangelo and Titian.”

An attempt to study at the Academy of Florence failed because the school was re-organizing at the time, so, after returning to Paris from Florence, Sargent began his art studies with Carolus-Duran, who was on a meteoric rise at the time, and studied with him from 1874 to 1878. In 1874, on his first attempt, Sargent passed the rigorous exam required to gain admission to the École des Beaux-Arts, the premier art school in France. He took drawing classes, which included anatomy and perspective. Sargent also took some lessons from Léon Bonnat.

Carolus-Duran’s atelier was progressive, dispensing with the traditional academic approach, which required careful drawing and underpainting, in favor of the alla prima method of working directly on the canvas with a loaded brush, derived from Diego Velázquez. It was an approach that relied on the proper placement of tones of paint. This approach also permitted spontaneous flourishes of color not bound to an under-drawing. Sargent’s early enthusiasm was for landscapes, not portraiture, as evidenced by his voluminous sketches full of mountains, seascapes, and buildings. Carolus-Duran’s expertise in portraiture finally influenced Sargent in that direction. Commissions for history paintings were still considered more prestigious, but were much harder to get. Portrait painting, on the other hand, was the best way of promoting an art career, getting exhibited in the Salon, and gaining commissions to earn a livelihood.

Sargent’s first major portrait was of his friend Fanny Watts in 1877, and was also his first Salon admission. Its particularly well-executed pose drew attention. His second salon entry was the Oyster Gatherers of Cançale, an impressionistic painting of which he made two copies. In 1879, at the age of 23, Sargent painted a portrait of teacher Carolus-Duran; the virtuoso effort met with public approval, and announced the direction his mature work would take. Its showing at the Paris Salon was both a tribute to his teacher and an advertisement for portrait commissions. Of Sargent’s early work, Henry James wrote that the artist offered “the slightly ‘uncanny’ spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn.”

After leaving Carolus-Duran’s atelier, Sargent visited Spain. There he studied the paintings of Velázquez, absorbing his technique, and in his travels gathered ideas for future works. He was entranced with Spanish music and dance. The trip also re-awakened his own talent for music, and which found visual expression in his early masterpiece El Jaleo (1882). Music would continue to play a major part in his social life as well, as he was a skillful accompanist of both amateur and professional musicians. Sargent became a strong advocate for modern composers, especially Gabriel Fauré. Trips to Italy provided sketches and ideas for several Venetian street scenes genre paintings, which effectively captured gestures and postures he would find useful in later portraiture.

Upon his return to Paris, Sargent quickly received several portrait commissions, and his career was launched. He immediately demonstrated the concentration and stamina that enabled him to paint with workman-like steadiness for the next 25 years. He filled in the gaps between commissions with many non-commissioned portraits of friends and colleagues.

I won’t belabor the history of Sargent’s career more. Instead, I will look at 3 significant works.

Portrait of Madame X

This portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau caused a major scandal when it was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1884. Mme Gautreau was well known in Parisian social circles for using her beauty to advantage, and engaging in “infelicities.” She was sought after by numerous portraitists, because of the notoriety a painting of her would secure the artist. Sargent went beyond the bounds of polite society, however, by deliberately painting her in a seductive pose wearing a provocative dress. The plunging neckline, oceans of bare skin, and come-hither stance were scandalous enough for late-19th-century Parisians, but in the original Sargent also painted the right strap of her dress hanging down over her arm, which was considered to be outrageously salacious. For a time Mme Gautreau had to retire from public, even though Sargent did not name her on the portrait. She was well known without being identified. In addition, Sargent’s commissions in France dried up completely, and so he moved to London where he flourished.

Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood

On a visit to Monet at Giverny in 1885, Sargent painted one of his most Impressionistic portraits: Monet at work painting outdoors with his new wife nearby. Sargent is usually not thought of as an Impressionist painter, but he sometimes used Impressionist techniques. This is his own version of the Impressionist style which he continued using into the late 1880s, after his visit to Monet. Monet later wrote on Sargent’s style: “He is not an Impressionist in the sense that we use the word, he is too much under the influence of Carolus-Duran.”

Gassed

In May 1918, Sargent was one of several painters commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee of the British Ministry of Information to create a large painting for a planned Hall of Remembrance. The plan for a Hall of Remembrance decorated by large paintings was abandoned when the project was incorporated with that for Imperial War Museum. Although he was 62 years old, he travelled to the Western Front in July 1918, accompanied by Henry Tonks. He spent time with the Guards Division near Arras, and then with the American Expeditionary Forces near Ypres. He was determined to paint an epic work with many human figures, but struggled to find a situation with American and British figures in the same scene. On 11 September 1918, Sargent wrote to Evan Charteris:

The Ministry of Information expects an epic – and how can one do an epic without masses of men? Excepting at night I have only seen three fine subjects with masses of men – one a harrowing sight, a field full of gassed and blindfolded men – another a train of trucks packed with “chair à cannon” – and another frequent sight a big road encumbered with troops and traffic, I daresay the latter, combining English and Americans, is the best thing to do, if it can be prevented from looking like going to the Derby.

The “harrowing sight” referred to the aftermath of a German barrage that Sargent witnessed on 21 August 1918, at Le Bac-du-Sud, between Arras and Doullens, in which mustard gas had been used against the advancing 99th Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division and 8th Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division of the British Army, during the Second Battle of Arras of 1918. You can see his deliberate homage to Breughel (The Blind Leading the Blind):

Sargent’s painting is huge, and, for me, is haunting, and captivates the horrors of the Great War. Curiously, in its day it had a remarkably mixed reception. Virginia Woolf, for example, described it as annoyingly patriotic, and E.M. Forster called it “too heroic.” I don’t see that at all. What was in their heads?

Sargent’s Birthday Party, is perhaps not as well known as his portraiture. It shows his mix of Realism and Impressionism, and also his characteristic use of color – especially the contrast of red and white, which you find in numerous portraits. So I thought that a characteristic (American) red and white cake would be appropriate for celebrating his birthday: the classic red velvet cake.

Red Velvet Cake

Ingredients

Cake:

½ cup shortening
1 ½ cups white sugar
2 eggs
2 tbsp cocoa
4 tbsp red food coloring
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
2 ½ cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp baking soda
1 tbsp distilled white vinegar

Icing:

5 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
1 cup white sugar
1 cup butter, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 350˚F/175˚C.

Grease two 9-inch round pans.

For the cake: Beat the shortening and 1 ½ cups sugar together until they are very light and fluffy. Add the eggs slowly and beat well. Make a paste of the cocoa and red food coloring and beat into the creamed mixture.

In a separate bowl, mix the salt, 1 teaspoon vanilla, and buttermilk together. Add the flour to the batter, alternating with the buttermilk mixture, mixing just until incorporated. Mix the baking soda and vinegar in a cup and gently fold into the cake batter. Don’t beat or stir the batter after this point.

Pour the batter into the prepared pans. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool the cakes completely on a wire rack.

For the icing: Put 5 tablespoons flour and milk into a saucepan, whisk, and then cook over low heat until thick, stirring constantly. Let cool completely. While the mixture is cooling, beat 1 cup of sugar, butter, and 1 teaspoon vanilla until light and fluffy. Add the cooled flour and milk mixture and beat until the icing is a good spreading consistency.

Split the cakes into layers, spreading the icing thickly between each layer, and then over the top and sides of the cake.