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February 17, 2006

LOS ANGELES—The Getty’s broad and important holdings of works by Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917) are the focus of a new exhibition, which features paintings, drawings, pastels, and photographs from the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum.  Degas at the Getty, at the Getty Center, March 7–June 11, 2006, offers a rare opportunity to explore the artist’s mastery across media. The exhibition brings together, for the first time, a wide variety of works by Degas that are usually displayed in different areas of the Museum.  On view as a group, these works give visitors insight into Degas’ meticulous approach to the creative process, his versatility and restless experimentation, and his constant negotiation between tradition and innovation.

Degas at the Getty features 14 works that span the length of his career, highlighting three of Degas’ key subjects—portraits, popular entertainment and social life, and bathers. The exhibition includes two recent acquisitions, The Milliners (about 1882–before 1905), one of Degas’ most modern works and the most emotionally resonant and technically complex of his millinery pictures, and the dynamic pastel drawing Miss Lala at the Fernando Circus (1879).  These works will join an early self-portrait in oil, painted when he was about 23 years old, After the Bath, a conspicuously constructed composition of a woman bathing in a private interior, and rarely-displayed photographs Degas made later in his career in the 1890s.  The exhibition also includes an album filled with Degas’ sketches produced over the course of many evenings in 1877 at the home of his childhood friend Louise Halévy.

Degas experimented widely with materials and techniques available at the time, and labored to understand their properties and limitations. The works in this exhibition demonstrate Degas’ continual engagement with the artistic process, as he strove to capture his vision on canvas, paper, and by using photographic materials.

Degas was a modern artist steeped in tradition. While he displayed a modern edge in his subjects, dramatic compositions and viewpoints, and penetrating psychological insight, he was also traditionally concerned with the fundamental challenges of making art—depicting figures in space, capturing light and shadow, and technically mastering his materials.  The combined results of his approach can be seen in his pastel Waiting (about 1882), owned jointly with the Norton Simon Art Foundation, Pasadena, which features the soft figure of a ballet dancer, in white, resting backstage, juxtaposed with the severe figure of her chaperone, dressed in black.  Degas leaves the end of their bench empty to emphasize the strong diagonal axis of his composition as well as the isolation of the figures from one another in this spare setting, creating one of his most psychologically complex arrangements. He further deepens the mystery by obscuring the faces of both women.

Degas invested much thought and effort into form and content, meticulously planning and revising works that appear to capture fleeting moments. The pastel Miss Lala at the Fernando Circus is one of at least five full-length preparatory drawings that Degas made of the famed acrobat suspended in mid-air. In the Getty’s drawing, he worked to refine her pose in order to convey her strength and upward movement. He initially drew the outline of her right arm at a lower angle, and he made other adjustments to the original placement of her chin, right hand, legs, and feet. This drawing, dated January 21, 1879, is the first of his studies to depict Miss Lala in the pose he would ultimately use in the painting of the same name, now in the National Gallery, London.

Such vigorous reworking can also be seen in The Milliners.  Degas continuously revised the painting over a period of about 20 years, radically transforming its composition and meaning. Recent X-ray analysis of the work conducted by the Getty revealed that the three foreground hat stands once held brightly colored and decorated hats, and that the woman on the left wore a much more elaborate costume, indicating that she was first conceived as a customer, rather than a worker. The Milliners is a radical rethinking of his working women portraits of the previous decade.  This shift reflects the modern commitment to portraying the working class in art.

When Degas purchased a camera in 1895, he began to experiment in the new medium, just as he did in his paintings and drawings. He soon learned the technical aspects of photography well enough to manipulate his materials for the desired effect so that he could revise his photographs much as he revised his paintings. In the photograph Portrait of Louise Halévy by Lamplight (1895), Degas stretches the limits of photography by creating a powerful composition in the near absence of light.

Degas used photography to continue his exploration of the human form, creating numerous modern variations on the nude figure, while always being aware of its long artistic tradition.  Two photographs, Seated Nude (1895) and After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Back (1896) feature studio models in unconventional poses. They are, perhaps, among the most radical presentations of the human body in art before the abstractions of Cubism.

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Miranda Carroll
Getty Communications Department

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