Degas Is Having a Moment, Again

Degas Is Having a Moment, Again

Getting carried away while looking at art is one of its central pleasures. It is among the reasons we buy pictures or go to museums: to lose ourselves.

That experience is only heightened for professionals in the field, who delve even more deeply into the works. But some artists enchant more than others.

“Art historians get drunk on Degas,” said Richard Kendall, an independent curator who has written many books on the Impressionist master, known above all for his ballerina depictions.

Mr. Kendall chuckled and added, “I’ve devoted an embarrassingly large amount of attention to him.”

His most recent venture into the work of Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was for a catalog essay about the artist’s “Three Dancers in Yellow Skirts” (circa 1891), an oil on canvas being offered by Hammer Galleries at the European Fine Art Fair, known as TEFAF, in Maastricht, the Netherlands.

Hammer is mum on the exact asking price, but said that it was north of the all-time Degas auction record, the $37 million paid at Sotheby’s New York in 2008 for the pastel and gouache “Danseuse au repos” (circa 1879).

“Three Dancers in Yellow Skirts” is ablaze with color. The shade of the title is contrasted and complemented by vibrant areas of orange, pink, blue, brown and green. The dancers are caught in an offhand moment, un-self-conscious and not performing. They are all looking in different directions.

Mr. Kendall went so far as to call one aspect of the work “startling”: Degas painted it partly with his fingertips. He did the circles of orange above the dancers’ heads that way, not to mention the area in the lower right-hand corner. Mr. Kendall cited it as evidence of radical, later-career experimentation on Degas’s part.

The artist — a Parisian born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas — helped establish Impressionism, but his work stood apart. He was older than many of the other artists, and he preferred interior scenes and figure studies to plein-air pictures.

Howard Shaw, the president of Hammer Galleries, said he had confidence in a large price tag for “Three Dancers in Yellow Skirts” for one main reason: “He did very few major oils at this stage in his career.” That scarcity gives collectors “a deep desire for masterworks.”

In recent weeks, his office at Hammer on the Upper East Side had not only the Degas on display but also Mary Cassatt’s “Summertime” (1894) and “The Bois de Boulogne With People Walking” (1886) by Vincent van Gogh, both part of the gallery’s offering at TEFAF.

“It’s about as nice as it’s ever looked in here,” Mr. Shaw said.

The provenance of the Degas is particularly noteworthy. The collector and industrialist Armand Hammer — who established his namesake Los Angeles museum in 1990, before it became part of UCLA — bought “Three Dancers in Yellow Skirts” in 1969. It has since been exhibited all over the world.

Upon Mr. Hammer’s death, also in 1990, it became part of the Armand Hammer Foundation. Mr. Hammer established Hammer Galleries in 1928 and there is no official connection between it and the foundation, though, as in this case, the foundation sometimes sells works through the gallery.

Early in his career, Mr. Shaw got to know Mr. Hammer, who lived in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and bought many masterworks in that period. Mr. Shaw asked him why he had left the country, given the deals he was finding on artworks. “He said, ‘Howard, I felt that Stalin was someone with whom I could not make a deal,’” Mr. Shaw recalled.

“Three Dancers in Yellow Skirts” enters a Degas market with its own rules.

Julian Dawes, the co-head of the Impressionist and Modern department at Sotheby’s New York and the chief of the house’s evening sales, said: “We see a lot of Degas, but it’s very rare at the top. We don’t sell a lot over $20 million. And when it’s over $30 million, that’s usually museum-level.”

“He was a once-in-a-generation talent as a draftsman,” Mr. Dawes added. “He’s the best at capturing the human form and motion.”

Mr. Dawes contrasted the Degas market with that of Monet. There’s something of a glut of Monet paintings with price tags of more than $20 million, he said.

Part of the reason for Degas’s unique place at auction is that he worked in many media, and each has a different price range and following among collectors.

The categories include pencil or charcoal sketches, pastel sketches (more valuable because they are in color), fully realized pastels, oils and sculptures. Some sketches can be bought for around $20,000 or even much less, Mr. Dawes said.

And, unusual among Impressionists, “There’s not a clear hierarchy between Degas’s oil and pastels,” he said. “Often oils are considered more permanent and solid, and more indicative of the labor of the artist. But Degas was so drawn to pastel, and he basically put pastel on the map.”

For American audiences who do not make it to the Maastricht fair — or who are short a few million to buy “Three Dancers in Yellow Skirts” — a major exhibition, “Degas at the Opera,” opens at the National Gallery of Art in Washington on Sunday, and runs through July 5. Before, the show was at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Degas’s longtime interest in the opera was not unrelated to his love of dance, his most famous subject.

“We think of ballet as something separate, but in the 19th century it was part of opera in France,” said Kimberly A. Jones, a National Gallery curator who helped organize the show, which has about 100 works in different media.

“He was interested in music all his life, but opera took it to a new level,” Ms. Jones said. “Opera is all about artifice, and for Degas, it became a metaphor for creation itself.”

Typically for Degas, the works do not often depict performances straight-on. He was more interested in the behind-the-scenes views, including the world of what Ms. Jones called the obsessive “superfans” of the day, men who are seen watching women and sometimes interacting with them.

Some of the images have an “uneasiness,” Ms. Jones said, citing “Dancers Backstage” (1876/1883), an oil in the show from the National Gallery’s collection. The scene shows a pink-clad performer with her arms firmly clasped as she looks away from a top-hatted patron who may be looming “ominously,” as Ms. Jones put it.

But she added that the complexity is part of what keeps experts coming back to Degas.

“Degas’s reputation stays strong because the paintings are so complicated,” Ms. Jones said.

“Anyone who tells you they have figured out Degas is lying,” she added. “He’s an enigma. The more you know, the less you understand.”

Source link

About The Author

We report the News from around the Globe. Please support our advertisers.

Related posts

Leave a Reply