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This paper discusses Degas’ representation of his circle of friends in reference to heroes and hero worship. For the purposes of the paper, ‘hero’ will be taken to mean ‘characters, that, in the face of adversity, and perhaps from a position of weakness display courage and the will for self-sacrifice’, with hero worship following the generally understood meaning ‘intense admiration for a hero’. The paper will show that Degas viewed his friends as heroes, in that they sacrificed themselves for their work, and that, through his collecting of various works, especially by those of close friends, and his portraits of his close friends, he exhibited ‘hero-worshipping’ towards these friends.
The book Edgar Degas: Six Friends at Dieppe, based on a 2005/6 exhibition of the same name at the RISD Museum, looks in detail at Degas’ relationships with his close circle of friends, as portrayed in Degas’ 1885 pastel portrait of the same name. In this work, Degas presents Ludovic Halevy, Daniel Halevy, Jacques-Emil Blanch, Henri Gervex, Walter Sickert, and Albert Boulanger-Cave. The complex, often highly volatile, but always extremely loyal, friendships between these men, and with Degas, are narrated in Degas’ portrait. This is discussed in more detail in the book Edgar Degas: Six Friends at Dieppe, which concludes that Degas had an extremely complex relationship with his friends, and that once he had formed a friendship, Degas was at pains to let this friendship go, whatever the cost. He valued his friendships extremely highly, particularly, it seems, because he saw them as a means of releasing himself to the world, for his own timidity was often restrictive, and it was his relationships with close friends that allowed him to flourish (see Meyers, 2005).
Degas formed many strong friendships throughout his life, as we have seen, with Ludovic Halevy ranking amongst the most dear, with loyal friendships with other artists (such as Emile Zola) informing his work, in terms of developing ideas about realism, and the role of painting, for example. Degas’ friendship with Sickert, for example, withstood the test of time, as relayed by Sickert himself in his 1917 article about his friendship with Degas (see Sickert, 1917), which portrays a profound affection for his friend Degas. This friendship is also explored in Robins (1988), which shows that Degas had a deep respect for Sickert, so much so that he introduced Sickert to mutual friends and to his own dealers. Degas’ friendship with Sickert was, however, only one of his many close friendships: he also had deep, and well-documented, friendships with Manet, with Toulouse-Lautrec, and with Emile Zola amongst others. Indeed, it is within the context of these friendships that he came to see ‘realism’ in art as the true path that his work should take, as documented in his many letters and through his various works (see, for example, Degas, 2000).
Degas’ friendship with Manet is legendary, based on a comradely rivalry, with many ups and downs, forged together through strong artistic bonds, described as ‘(they) used the same models, shared an iconography and indulged in reciprocal quotations’ (see Baumann et al., 1995). The two artists, thus, informed each others works, and, indeed, an explicit connection between Degas’ pastel works and Manet’s Chez le Pere Lathuille has been made (see Meyers, 2005), perhaps suggestive of some form of reciprocal hero worship towards Degas on the part of Manet. However tumultuous their friendship, however, it is perhaps indicative of the depth of Degas’ respect for Manet that Manet’s Ham and Pear were opposite Degas’ bed, so they were the first things he saw in the morning when he awoke (Meyers, 2005). Degas’ portraits of Manet, such as his 1968/9 Portrait of Monsieur and Madame Edouard Manet, often raised trouble between the friends, and indeed, Manet cut Suzanne’s face off of this portrait, in disgust, although it is thought, through analyses of Degas’ writings, that no harm was actually intended, and, indeed, the portrait seemed to have been intended as a genuine compliment to the couple, leading to a temporary split in the friendship (see Baumann et al., 1995). Other portraits, such as the etching Portrait of Edouard Manet completed in 1862/5 shows Degas’ utmost respect for Manet, showing Manet as alert and attentive, reinforcing Degas’ tendency to reveal how he felt about his friends, as artistic heroes, and even perhaps, as personal heroes who saved Degas from the darker sides of his own personality, and from his own personal demons.
Degas, the complex artist, with complex interpretations, can thus be argued to have exhibited ‘hero worshipping’ towards his friends, as we have seen, through spending time with them, discussing realism with them, and by taking his time to paint portraits of them. In addition to this, Degas was an avid collector of art, and he avidly collected the work of old masters and contemporaries, with the aim of founding a Museum to house his extensive collection, although his loss of faith in the idea of a Museum, his suicide and the subsequent war-time sale of the collection did not allow for the construction of a Museum to house his collection. As Dumas (2000) and Ives et al. (1998) document, Degas’ personal art collection numbered over 5000 works at the time of his death, including works by masters such as Delacroix and Ingres, but mostly works by his contemporaries, including Manet, Cassatt, Van Gogh and Gauguin. This represents a form of appreciation of their work, and, indeed, Degas is known to have only collected the best works of each artist, often, as was the case with Cezanne, collecting their work before the artists had attracted a dealer, or had sold their work widely. His dedication to his work as a collector constitutes, in some form, hero worship, as one artist appreciating the heroic efforts of another artists to produce worthy art.
Understanding representations of friends of Degas as heroes is therefore a valid way in which to understand Degas’ intense admiration for the work of his contemporaries. Under this understanding, for Degas, collecting and portrait painting was a form of hero worship.
Baumann, F.A. et al., 1995. Degas Portraits: Portraits. Merrell Holberton.
Dumas, A., 2000. The Private Collection of Edgar Degas. Yale University Press.
Degas, E., 2000. Degas by himself: Drawings, paintings and writings. Little, Brown.
Ives, C., Stein, S.A. and Steiner, J.A. (eds.), 1998. The Private Collection of Edgar Degas: a summary catalogue. Harry N. Abrams Inc.
Julius, M., 1996. Edgar Degas – obsessive artist, obsessive collector. Contemporary Review August, pp.13-14.
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Meyers, J., 2005. Impressionist Quartet: the intimate genius of Manet and Morisot, Degas and Cassatt. Harcourt.
O’Brien, M. et al., 2005. Edgar Degas: Six Friends at Dieppe. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design.
Robins, A.G., 1988. Degas and Sickert: notes on their friendship. The Burlington Magazine 130(1020), pp.198+210-211+225-229.
Robins, A.G. and Thomas, R., 2005. Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec: London and Paris, 1870-1910. Tate Publishing.
Sickert, W., 1917. Degas. The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 31(176), pp.183-187+190-191.
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 Nowhere is this better illustrated than in his extremely close relationship with Cassatt. He owned more than ninety of Cassatt’s prints, and aside from painting Cassatt’s portrait, he also produced a series of etchings entitled Mary Cassatt at the Louvre (see Julius, 1996).
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