Degas and music

Editorial Staff

It will probably not come as a surprise to many to learn that the French impressionist painter Edgar Degas enjoyed music and often attended performances several times a week. After all, the artist’s sculpture The Little Fourteen-Year-Old-Dancer of about 1880 and his many paintings of ballerinas in class, at rehearsal, backstage, and on stage are among the best-known works of his oeuvre, and some of the most iconic works of the period. What is surprising is that the exhibition currently on view at the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, New York, Degas and Music, is the first to focus exclusively on this aspect of Degas’s career, although others have focused on dance. Included are portraits of the artist’s musician friends and images of cabaret singers, as well as multiple scenes chronicling the world of the ballet-some thirty-five paintings and other works from national and international collections, including the Hyde’s own holdings.

Degas was raised in a highly cultivated family and was interested in music long before he picked up a brush. But following the death of his father in 1874, he turned his back on his own society and became fascinated with the exotic, vulgar, and brash world of the café-concert, whose performers became frequent models for him. On one level, what seems to have attracted him to singers adjusting their costumes or belting out songs, or to dancers stretching their muscles and pirouetting on stage, was the draftsman’s interest in movement and gesture. But the erotic potential of these performances-emphasized in scenes that include the heads of the predominantly male audience, or a man waiting in the wings to rendezvous with his protégée-clearly preoccupied him too.

Degas and Music
was organized by Richard Kendall, the curator-at-large at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and the independent scholar and dance historian Jill De Vonyar. It is their third collaboration: they were coauthors of Degas and the Dance in 2002 and cocurators of the exhibition Degas and the Art of Japan at Pennsylvania’s Reading Public Museum in 2007. They have also coauthored the catalogue of this show at the Hyde Collection.

Degas and Music · Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, New York · to October 18 ·

Images from above: Degas’s Father Listening to Lorenzo Pagans Playing the Guitar by Edgar Degas (1834-1917), c. 1869-1872. Oil on canvas, 32 1⁄8 by 25 5⁄8 inches. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, bequest of John T. Spaulding. Café Singer by Degas, 1879. Oil on canvas, 21 by 16 ½ inches. Art Institute of Chicago, bequest of Clara Margaret Lynch in memory of John A. Lynch.