French painter Edgar Degas is most well known for his paintings of bathing nudes, horse races and the dancers and ballerinas of French high society. Heck, even his brief foray into sculptures of dancers has left an indelible mark on art history. One example is a bronze cast of his most famous work Little Dance Aged Fourteen, which will be auctioned on November 1. It is expected to fetch at anywhere from USD $25-35 million; the extraordinary thing is that this bronze statue is one of 28. That’s right, one of 28 cast after the artist died in 1917. The popularity Degas enjoys can also be seen in an exhibition Degas and the nude currently at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston until February 5. As the name suggest, the exhibition explores Degas and the naked feminine form.
To starkly illustrate Degas’ interest, curators amassed more than 145 Degas artworks, including his classic paintings, pastels, preparatory drawings and sculptures. Also included are exemplary works on the female form from artists before him, with the goal to trace an evolutionary path as to why Degas was so revolutionary in his treatment of female nudity. In short, and if you want to condense an exhibition down to a sentence, one simply has to quote Degas himself when he denied being an Impressionist: “I’m a realist,” he retorted. Degas’ approach was radical because he painted women of all classes, notably the working class, in everyday activities without glossing over and applying photoshop ideals. His women were large, big boned, fat, skinny and, to some extent, ugly. But they were also beautiful, lithe, supple with smooth flesh. In short, real.
This sense of reality is also attributable to a less well known area of the Degas oeuvre, landscapes and portraits. As the old joke in art circles goes: People want landscapes from Monet and figures from Degas, they don't want figures from Monet and landscapes from Degas. Nevertheless, for the astute investor and scholar of Degas, every part of his life would pose some interest. So it was for the former curator (now retired) of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, Robert Johnson. For 40 years Johnson bought Degas lithographs, prints and drawings, eventually amassing a total collection of 60 Degas artworks. He is now sharing his collection at The Naples Museum of Art, Florida. But what can one who can’t make it there expect from the exhibition?
The exhibit features figures studies for his famous paintings, animal studies of horses, three rare Degas self portraits and numerous portraits of Degas’ family members and friends. Johnson said many of these pieces came from Degas’ private collection and the artist never meant for the public to see them. Saucy voyeurism, we’d say. One particularly special piece for Johnson was a monotype he first bout in 1972, which kicked off the collection. “It was just two trees,” he said, “It was like a scribble from a genius. On one level, he had just tossed it off. But on the other level, it was very beautiful. He was the only real humanist in the Impressionists’ circle.”