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Melancholy, Edgar Degas | Arts & Activities
Mar 2015

Melancholy, Edgar Degas

Melancholy, Edgar Degas

DETAIL: Edgar Degas (French; 1834–1917). Melancholys, late 1860s. Oil on canvas; 7.5″ x 9.75″.
The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1941.
Copy Write: Artwork is in the Public Domain.

Feelings in Art

About the Artist

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas, known more simply and commonly as Degas, was born into wealth in Paris on July 19, 1834. Schooled in the classics and academically trained, Degas’ early works were history pieces, yet he quickly abandoned the fashionable subject matter of the salon for what would become a keenly modernist approach to art.

Degas exhibited with the group of French painters who would become known as the Impressionists (a moniker that Degas deplored, instead referring to himself as an Independent), yet he was an outsider in many ways. The most common aspect of his work with that of Monet, Renoir and the other Impressionists was his interest in the subject matter of modern life. For Degas, the ballet, horse racing, theater, the circus, and interior shop scenes were more fascinating that the most perfect landscape vista.

Whereas Monet sought to capture the effects of light on a surface, Degas’ focus was on contour and form. A superb draftsman, he filled pages of sketchbooks with exquisite studies that reveal his drawing skills. In the New York Times Magazine obituary, “Edgar Degas, Greatest Draftsman of His Century (10/7/1917),” the writer describes his prowess of line, “He could have disciplined the turbulent Tintoretto to the finer sense of contour, Leonardo would have not disdained the science of his modeling, his line ran like a hunting dog to its prey.”

Degas rebuked the practice of painting out of doors, preferring to work from memory and to capture the interior effects of artificial light. Influenced by Japanese prints, Degas integrated the diagonal and cropping techniques common in Ukiyo-e prints to create dynamic and modern compositions.

In portraiture, Degas was a master of creating subtle psychological tension, most notable in the work, The Bellelli Family (c. 1858-1867). This month’s Art Print, Melancholy, is an excellent example of how this master painter and draftsman used color, line, composition and form to create a work that simply and powerfully conveys a palpable sense of sadness.

About the Artwork

Ballerinas, milliners, women bathers, circus performers: these are the subjects that Edgar Degas is most commonly known. His work in portraiture is less popular in comparison to his many works that depict the ballet, yet they are some of his most emotionally powerful.

Schooled in the classics, Degas would have most certainly known of the ancient understanding of melancholia, a disease of the mind thought to be caused by an excess of black bile and marked by intense sadness. Although the ancients had no understanding of brain chemistry, what they were describing was clinical depression. Degas is one in a long line of artists to choose melancholy as a subject. Albrecht Dürer, Edvard Munch and Pablo Picasso all mined the subject.
The work is described on the Phillips Collection website: “Melancholy, a portrait of an unidentified woman, demonstrates Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas’ tremendous talent for effectively portraying mood in his sitters … At this early point in his career, however, when he was closely examining human nature through portraiture, Degas may have intended melancholic emotion to be a dominant theme. In it, Degas produced a compact, balanced image that evokes quiet intimacy and solemnity, as well as suffering.”

The young woman, rendered in ruddy shades of red and orange, leans into the curve of the armchair as if unable to support the weight or her burden. The use of black (influenced by the work of Degas’ friend, painter Edouard Manet), lends gravity to the simple composition. The light source from the left casts a sickening yellow aura; the same color appears in the woman’s hand and in the abstract shadows on the wall. The artist provides no information as to the source of this woman’s emotional burden, but it is plain to see nonetheless.
by Colleen Carroll

From The March 2015 Issue Of Arts & Activities


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