Rembrant and Degas

Edgar Degas may be the most contrary of the nineteenth-century French avant-gardists. He exhibited alongside Monet and company but did not call himself an Impressionist. The way he crops his images and works with various mediums, notably pastel and monotype, looks bracingly radical even today, but he told a friend: “I assure you no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters.” That declaration appears as the epigraph to an essay, by Jenny Reynaerts and Stella Versluis-Van Dongen, for “Rembrandt and Degas: Two young Artists,” which originated at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, traveling to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. This intimate exhibition focuses on a largely unexamined phase of Degas’s self-education, his study of Rembrandt, who was, at the time, outside the strict confines of the academic pantheon.

The finest draftsman of the avant-garde, Degas worked at the école des Beaux-Arts under a student of Ingres and absorbed the master’s coolness and linear prowess. Degas spent three years in Italy, copying classical sculpture and Renaissance painting. He was also looking at Rembrandt, mostly at prints in the Louvre’s Cabinet des Estampes and in private collections. Degas was intrigued by the etching medium itself and by Rembrandt’s distinctive use of chiaroscuro. The exhibition testifies to the benefits of copying, not just as a formal exercise but as a way of establishing a link across the centuries. In this exhibition, Rembrandt’s Young Man in a Velvet Cap (1637) is juxtaposed with Degas’s copy, Young Man, Seated, in a Velvet Beret (1857). In Degas’s etching, he flips the image, and the web of lines is scratchier, with less detail and richness in the scarf. Degas used a similar velvet cap in two etching versions of his Portrait of Joseph Gabriel Tourney (1857 and c. 1860). In the first, the figure is lightly sketched, while the face is fully alive, animated by light and shade. In the second, Degas uses more ink, and the figure seems enveloped in shadow, with the light from a window subtly revealing the features. The dramatic chiaroscuro reflects Rembrandt’s aesthetic while looking forward to the mysterious depths of Odilon Redon. These etchings are a fitting tribute to Degas’s friend, a noted Rembrandt enthusiast.

Rembrandt van Ryn, Self-Portrait as a Young ManThe revival of interest in Rembrandt brought together an assortment of artists and writers, including Gustave Moreau, Eugène Delacroix and Charles Baudelaire, who championed the Dutch master’s contre-jour effects and promoted the idea of an outsider persona, perhaps historically inaccurate but useful in advancing aspects of an anti-establishment agenda. Charles blanc’s illustrated catalogue of Rembrandt’s etchings (1853) made the work more accessible. The free play of light and shade, and the looseness of the brushwork to offer a counterbalance to academic purity and elegance. Delacroix, as Reynaerts and Versluis-Van Dongen note, referred to the “heureuses négligences” (happy carelessness) of Rembrandt’s style.

No one would characterize Degas as particularly happy or careless, but Rembrandt’s influence enriched his repertoire of skills and added dimension to his work. Rembrandt is, among other distinctions, a quintessential exponent of the self-portrait. He used himself as a model throughout his career, documenting his changing appearance as he aged and sporting a variety of costumes. Degas made around forty self-portraits, mostly between 1854 and 1862. The series represents a phase, rather than a lifelong project, but the results are intriguing. Degas’s Self-Portrait with Charcoal (c. 1854–55, Musée d’Orsay) mimics the pose in Ingres’s Self-Portrait at the Age of 24 (1804). The strong outline of the figure is retained, but softened by sfumato. Degas, as a subject, also lacks Ingres’s swagger. Degas makes a virtue of modern anxiety in an etching Self-Portrait (1857), in which his narrow frame is encased in a dark suit and his face is shadowed by a brimmed hat. There are two versions in the show. The one now in the Metropolitan Museum (a first state) builds up the figure from a dense web of lines. A third printing (c. 1860), from the Clark, more heavily inked, is evocatively smudged: line disappears into tone.

Edgar Degas, Self-Portrait

The stars of the exhibition, however, are oil paintings: two self-portraits by the young Rembrandt matched with two by Degas. Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait as a Young Man (c. 1628–29, Rijksmuseum) is an extreme study in chiaroscuro: the features are nearly obscured by dense shadow, with only the ear, cheek and neck illuminated. The warmth of the young flesh and curly hair gives life to the otherwise shadowy form, and the lightened grey of the background makes the dark silhouette stand out. Self-Portrait as a Young Man (1629, Alte Pinakothek, Munich) keeps the same pose—bust-length figure facing right—but with interesting variations. Rembrandt leans forward, his lips are parted, and he shifts his eyes back to the viewer. We can see these details because the shadows on the face are less dense, and a loosely painted white lace collar further lightens the mood.

Degas assumes a similar pose in his self-portraits but expresses wariness and reserve. In Self-Portrait (c. 1855–56), he wears a smock with a crisp white collar. His long, angular face—so different from Rembrandt’s fleshiness—is pale against a dark background, but he shifts his dark eyes to look at us the way Rembrandt does. Both Rembrandt and Degas are engaging the viewer and playing with their own personae. You can also see how Degas responds to Rembrandt’s experiments with figure and ground, line and tone. Degas was always a strong draftsman, a man in love with line, but his brushwork becomes freer in his Self-Portrait (c. 1857–58). His face, under the familiar brimmed hat, is hazy in soft shadow, an effect quite different from Rembrandt’s baroque spotlighting. The light on Degas’s jacket is a streak of white paint; the red, black and white of his garments are barely sketched in. Rembrandt’s temperament is warm, Degas’s is cool. Rembrandt presents himself as artist-actor; Degas is an observer, even a voyeur, even when he looks in the mirror. But as this smart exhibition reveals, the ways artists participate in tradition are complex and fascinating. “Rembrandt and Degas: Two young Artists” was on view November 13, 2011–February 5, 2012, at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 225 South Street, Williamstown, Massachusetts 01267. Telephone (413) 458-2303. On the web at The exhibition travels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New york City (February–May 2012). Two other Degas shows were on view this fall: “Degas and the Nude” (October 9, 2011–February 5, 2012), at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and “Degas’s Dancers at the Barre: Point and Counterpoint” (October 1, 2011–January 6, 2012), at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. 

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2012, Volume 29, Number 1