Degas early works: portraits and horse racing paintings
The self-portrait in the Orsay Museum from 1855 is from four years before his residency in the Pigalle area of lower Montmartre and reveals a serious, sullen young man. He has a condescending air and, with brush in hand, is wasting no time applying himself to his work.
Location: 13 Rue Victor Massé, 1859 – 1872/3, point 17
Degas travelled extensively during this period with long stays in Italy where he had family ties. He made sketches and studies of his aunt, uncle and their family in Florence; these sketches and studies formed the basis of his famous painting The Bellelli family. The work was finished in Paris in 1862 and so can be associated with point 17.
In The Bellelli Family, we see a stiff, distant, taught and severe family portrait that perhaps gives us clues into Degas’ own dry, unbending, cool character. The painting can be seen in the Orsay Museum in Paris.
Earlier still from 1860 is Young Spartans Exercising in the National Gallery in London.
Degas horse racing paintings
The new sport of horse racing in Paris
The redevelopment of Paris had brought horse racing onto the Parisian social scene. The newly opened hippodrome at Longchamp in the Bois de Boulogne was a popular meeting point.
Recent advances in photography had shown the range of improbable postures that the galloping horse adopted. These intrigued Degas and he set about incorporating them into his horse racing paintings. The hippodrome was an occasion to study the raw animal power of the horses and the attractive clashing colours of the jockey’s silks.
The ceaseless energy of the horses and the endlessly weaving patterns of jockey’s bright silks may have challenged Degas to consider how best to capture the instant of movement in paint.
Race Horses in Front of the Stands
The At the Races, the Start, in the Fogg Art Museum, from 1860-62 shows us some racehorses straining to get going and the jockeys’ silks caught in a pool of light.
Race Horses in Front of the Stands in the Orsay Museum, Paris is from about 1866-1868.
The work is in essence: oil paint thinned with petroleum. The runny paint helps to suggest a veil of thin high cloud as pale light floods through, bathing the ever irregular, individualistic and restless horses, the jockeys and the spectators with diffused milky sunlight.
In the distance one of the jockeys has lost control of a horse, whilst a smoking factory chimney reassures Degas that he is not far from the urban sprawl of the city.
A Woman Seated by a Vase of Flowers
A Woman Seated by a Vase of Flowers from 1865 in the Metropolitan Museum in New York shows a huge vase full of flowers and to the right of the scene a woman gazing pensively out of the frame, her hand drawn up to her cheek.
The woman appears to have her thoughts elsewhere and a part of her body is cropped, Japanese print style, by the edge of the picture. This is her portrait but she is secondary to the enormous floral display positioned in the middle of the image.
The feeling of absence and distraction looks ahead to the isolation of the In a Café aka Absinthe picture of 1876 which I describe at point 4 the Nouvelle Athenes Café.
The flowers in the Woman Seated by a Vase of Flowers painting are beautiful and abundant but will soon fade; she too is young.
Degas tried to capture movement in his art, here he has captured the mood of a moment; the visible beauty of the flowers, the private thoughts of the woman.
The Opera Orchestra
The Opera Orchestra, in the Orsay Museum, Paris is from 1870. It shows a musician friend of Degas, Désiré Dihau the bassoonist, who features prominently at the front of the picture.
Degas has set out to make all of the orchestra members recognisable and relegates what was to become one of his most important artistic theme, the opera ballerinas, to the back of the scene.
We see the girls’ legs and dresses vividly lit by the gas footlights but their heads are cropped out. Looking closely to the left at the top of the picture we see that Degas has included a realistic and telling detail as a male spectator/voyeur eyes the dancers’ legs.
All photographs © David Macmillan except: (1).
All Wikipedia photographic attribution courtesy of the Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons Attribution generator :
(1) Edgar Degas artist QS:P170,Q46373, Degas - Vor den Tribünen, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons