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Degas’ Passion for Perfection revealed at the Fitzwilliam Museum

A Degas pastel showing young female dancers in tutus

Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Dance Examination (Examen de Danse), 1880. Denver Art Museum, anonymous gift. Photography courtesy Denver Art Museum

The Fitzwilliam Museum opens up its collection of Degas studies and sketches to explore Edgar Degas passion for perfection

Abhorring complacency, Edgar Degas habitually revisited and reworked his compositions and the individual poses in them to mine the infinite possibilities of a given subject.

“It is essential to do the same subject over again, ten times, one hundred times,” said the French artist who believed “nothing should be left to chance”.

This meticulous approach has left us with some fascinating insights into the world of Degas via the hundreds of studies and sketches he left us when died in 1917, and nowhere in the UK is there a better collection of them than at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

So the Fitz’s major exhibition exploring Degas’ ‘Passion for Perfection’ in the centenary of his death, is timely and apposite, but also a great opportunity to see a rarely displayed collection together with over 40 important loans from both public and private collections across the world including a group of paintings and drawings bought directly by John Maynard Keynes from Degas’ posthumous studio sales in Paris in 1918 and 1919.

A Degas oil of women at a cafe table

Edgar Degas (1834–1917), At the Café, c.1875–7 © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

A Degas charcoal sketch of a young dancer pulling up her tights

Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Young Female Dancer Adjusting her Tights, c.1880 © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

a Degas colour sketch of two dancers reaching upwards in tutus

Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Female Dancers in Violet Skirts, their Arms Raised, c.1896–8 © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

The impressive breadth of works on display include paintings, sculpture, drawings, pastels, etchings, monotypes, counterproofs and letters – some business-like, some heart-rending – written by Degas to friends and associates.

Also prominent is Degas’s work in three dimensions: not only the famous posthumous bronze casts of his dancers, horses and nudes, but also some exceptionally rare lifetime sculptures in plaster and wax.

But do these artworks help us to decide if Degas was driven by ‘a passion for perfection’, as one acquaintance claimed? Or does it reveal a resistance to closure that marks him out as an agent of modernity?

Degas repeatedly acknowledged his debt to his artistic predecessors, insisting that ‘No art was ever less spontaneous than mine’ and the exhibition opens with a selection of works that highlight his reverence for classical antiquity and the Old Masters, as well as for painters and sculptors of his own century.

a degas charcoal of three ladies seen from the rear

Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Three Women at the Races (Trois Femmes aux Courses), c.1885, Denver Art Museum, anonymous gift. Photography courtesy Denver Art Museum

a sketch of a man (Degas) in ide profile with had raised to his chin

Giovanni Boldini, Edgar Degas at a Café Table, 1883 © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

a Degas watercolour of an old building or citadel seen across a landscape towards a hill

Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Castel Sant’Elmo, from Capodimonte, c.1856–9 © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

A range of works by some of the artists Degas most admired, from 15th-century Florentine draughtsmen to Eugène Delacroix, Camille Corot and his artistic idol, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, feature along with a number of beautiful and highly sensitive copies he made from antique and Renaissance paintings and sculpture.

The exhibition also charts Degas’ lifelong fascination with the nude, from his classicizing academy studies of the 1850s to the powerful charcoal drawings of female bathers of the last decades of the century.

From his fleshy, transgressive studies of prostitutes in brothels through to his later intimate studies of women bathing, drying or combing their hair – many of the latter depicted from behind – Degas’ unidealised representations of women are felt to have consistently broke with traditional depictions of the female body.

a Degas statuette in wax over wire of a young female dancer

Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Arabesque over the Right Leg, Left Arm in Front, First Study, c.1882–95 © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

A Degas sketch of a nude woman holding her long hair to one side as she leans and washes her neck

Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Female Nude Drying her Neck, c.1903. The Provost and Fellows of King’s College, Cambridge (Keynes Collection), © The Provost and Fellows of King’s College, Cambridge

a landscape by Degas with verdant green in the foreground seen through an archway

Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Italian Landscape seen through an Arch, c.1856–9. Courtesy Howard and Nancy Marks

Another favourite Degas theme also makes a major appearance via a range of paintings, pastels, fan designs and sculptures on the theme of the dance.

Degas famously represented dancers at work – performing arabesques, taking a bow at the curtain call, and waiting in the wings; but he also showed them at rest, nervously anticipating a dance examination, adjusting their costume, or acrobatically studying the soles of their feet.

When asked in old age why he always painted ballet dancers, Degas replied because “it is all that is left us of the combined movements of the Greeks.”

Drawings and sculptures of dancers also highlight their classical ancestry, notably with reference to terracotta Tanagra figurines produced in the last quarter of the fourth century B.C.

A Degas signature in red ink

Degas’ Signature Photograph copyright © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

As a counterbalance and fitting homage in the centennial year, the exhibition will conclude with a fascinating overview of 20th- and 21st-century artists such as Walter Sickert, Picasso, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, R.B. Kitaj, Lucian Freud, Howard Hodgkin and Ryan Gander, who drew on Degas as he did from past artists, studying and learning from his example while ‘doing something different’.

Degas: ‘A Passion for Perfection’ is at the Fitzwilliam, Cambridge from October 3 2017 – January 14 2018. 


The Fitzwilliam Museum

Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

From Egyptian coffins to Impressionist masterpieces – the Fitzwilliam Museum's world-class collections of art and antiquities span centuries and civilizations.


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