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Edgar Degas as Photographer to be Featured in Exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum

February 2-March 28, 1999
Location: West Pavilion

December 11, 1999

Los Angeles, CA.-Edgar Degas, one of the most revered of the artists associated with French Impressionism, was also a talented photographer. A revolutionary painter who became world renowned for his scenes of ballet dancers, race horses at Longchamps, and other images of Parisian life, Degas applied his genius to photography late in his career. On view at the Getty Center from February 2 through March 28, 1999, Edgar Degas, Photographer assembles for the first time all of his major surviving photographs, revealing the artist's surprising achievement in a medium in which he has gone largely unrecognized.

The 40 extraordinary photographs in the exhibition range in subject from portraits to dancers to street scenes and landscapes; they include several remarkable nudes and brilliantly colored glass-plate negatives. The photographs are shown with a few related paintings, pastels, monotypes, drawings, and sculpture. Accompanied by a fully illustrated scholarly catalogue, the exhibition places his photographic investigations in the context of Degas' other work and includes important loans from collections in the United States and France.

National support for the exhibition is made possible by Aetna.

The exhibition has been organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France in cooperation with the Musée d'Orsay.

"We are delighted to have Edgar Degas, Photographer at the Getty Museum," said Deborah Gribbon, Deputy Director and Chief Curator." This thoughtful exhibition, and the fine catalogue produced by our partners at the Metropolitan Museum, offer a rare opportunity to see how Degas explored photography both as a form of preparatory drawing and as a process of discovery that resulted in works of art in their own right."

Added Weston Naef, the Museum's Curator of Photographs: "The photographs that so excited the artist himself were bold experiments that he shared with a small circle of friends and fellow artists. The images are at times highly personal, sometimes theatrical, and occasionally Symbolist in their meanings. They reveal his full command of a new form of visual expression."

Born of French and Italian ancestry, Edgar Degas (1834-1917) abandoned law studies in 1855 to pursue art, enrolling in the École des beaux arts in Paris. Leaving Paris for Italy in the next year, he continued his artistic education by copying works from the school of Leonardo da Vinci. After returning to Paris in 1861, through the painter Édouard Manet he met the group that would be known as the Impressionists. Although he tried to avoid being labeled as such, Degas became one of the first among them to achieve recognition.

By the time he began making photographs in 1895, Degas was 61 years old and the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition was a decade behind him. Daniel Halévy, son of his old friends Ludovic and Louise Halévy, introduced Degas to photography, prompting the artist to acquire a camera that required glass plates and a tripod. In a burst of creative energy that lasted less than five years, he made a body of photographs of which fewer than 50 survive.

Malcolm Daniel, curator of the exhibition and Associate Curator of Photographs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, said: "Degas explored the plastic possibilities of every medium he used, unfettered by generally accepted rules of proper technique. His own photographs are the antithesis of the unstructured and instantaneous images one might imagine: they are carefully posed and lit."

Exactly why Degas took up photography remains unknown. Clearly, photography provided a new pair of eyes during the period when his eyesight was failing. The illness and death of his sister, Marguerite, in 1895 and his brother Achille in 1893 may also have played a role. Photographs were for Degas a powerful tool of memory to recall his loved ones, and the activity of photographing bound him closely to an extended family-the Halévys-that embraced him in his time of grief.

In the first of the three galleries housing the exhibition at the Getty Museum are photographic portraits and self-portraits, as well as earlier examples executed in oil. They remind the viewer how Degas' vision extends across all media, his work in one medium informing another. Especially intriguing is The Apotheosis of Degas (J. Paul Getty Museum), a photograph made during one of Degas' visits to the Halévy family in the seaside resort of Dieppe. It mimics a famous painting in the Louvre, The Apotheosis of Homer, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and shows Degas seated as Homer at the center of the composition, surrounded by attendants (including Daniel Halévy). A local photographer actually made the exposure in 1885, but the picture was conceived and composed by Degas, anticipating by a decade the artist's direct personal involvement with the medium. Also included in this gallery is Self-Portrait with Zoé Closier (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris), probably done in autumn of 1895, at the artist's Paris apartment. His housekeeper stands behind Degas, not gazing meditatively, like the artist, but looking directly at the camera with an expression of indulgent concern.

The second gallery contains photographs of art collectors, a painting related to this theme, and photographs of members of the artist's circle. Four photographs representing close friends were made after a dinner party in December 1895. Among those pictured are the Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir; the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, his wife, Marie, and daughter, Geneviève; Julie Manet (daughter of Édouard Manet's brother and the painter Berthe Morisot); and her cousins Paule and Jeannie Gobillard. In one interior (The Museum of Modern Art, New York), Degas captures Mallarmé leaning against a wall, his eyes directed downward at Renoir. The painter, tilting his head back and fixing his gaze toward the viewer, is seated cross-legged with arms gently folded. Demonstrating the photographer's complex orchestration, Degas also places himself, his camera, and the flare of his lamp within the composition. They are reflected in the mirror behind Renoir, along with Mallarmé's wife and daughter.

Degas often illuminated his subjects with a single bright light source. The figures seem to emerge from darkness. In a series of individual portraits he made of Daniel and Louise Halévy in the autumn of 1895, each sitter is pictured in the same armchair in their home, under this Rembrandtesque light. They are seen in original contact prints (about 3 x 4 inches) and in enlargements. Altogether, these images show the artist's picture-making process and reveal Degas' manipulations of space, scale, focus, and emotional effect. In Louise Halévy Reading to Degas (J. Paul Getty Museum), another enlargement from a contact print done about the same time, Degas conveys unusual intimacy. It shows a vulnerable man's dependence upon a friend in reading the newspaper at a time when his eyesight was failing.

Degas' fluid movement between various media provides a focus for the third gallery, in which his photographs are seen along with works including paintings, drawings, a monotype, and even a bronze sculpture. In After the Bath, Woman Drying her Back, a nude study of 1896 (J. Paul Getty Museum), a model twists dramatically on the back of a chair. She seems caught in a violent or acrobatic movement. The only photograph known directly to form the basis for a painting, it hangs nearby the major related canvas, After the Bath of 1896 (Philadelphia Museum of Art), and several smaller studies in pastel and charcoal.

In this gallery are three richly colored glass-plate negatives (Bibliothèque nationale de France) that have not been displayed outside France before this exhibition. Flush with red and orange hues, they contain the partially solarized forms of ballet dancers that served as models for a small statuette and dozens of drawings and pastels. These negatives, for which no positive prints exist from Degas' lifetime, treat a theme central to his art with a remarkable mystery and intimacy. The exquisite pose of the dancer adjusting her shoulder straps (late 1895 or 1896) anticipates that of the nearby sculpture, Dancer Adjusting the Shoulder Strap of Her Bodice (The Metropolitan Museum of Art), which was modeled in wax in 1896-99 and posthumously cast in bronze in 1920.

At the Getty Museum, the exhibition can be seen concurrently with Dance in Photography (February 2 through March 28), a related exhibition drawn entirely from the Museum's collections and installed in a nearby gallery. Edgar Degas, Photographer was seen first at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it was organized by Malcolm Daniel. The installation at the Getty Museum was organized by Weston Naef, Curator of Photographs, with the assistance of Anne Lyden, Curatorial Assistant. The exhibition will travel to the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, where it will be on view from May 31 through August 22, 1999.

On Thursday, February 4, 1999, at 7 p.m., Malcolm Daniel will present a lecture titled Edgar Degas, Photographer, in the Harold M. Williams Auditorium. Parking and seating reservations are required; call (310)440-7300.

By Malcolm Daniel
With essays by Eugenia Parry and Theodore Reff 144 pages, 106 illustrations (40 tritones, 63 duotones, 3 color); 10 X 11 in. ISBN 0-8109-6525-0, clothbound $49.50 Publication date: October 1998 Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Distributed by Harry N. Abrams. For information about the catalogue, contact Marilyn Abel: (212)879-6850. Available at the J. Paul Getty Museum bookstore. Tel: (310)440-7059; Fax: (310)440-7742 Major credit cards accepted.

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The J. Paul Getty Trust is an international cultural and philanthropic institution devoted to the visual arts that features the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Getty Research Institute. The J. Paul Getty Trust and Getty programs serve a varied audience from two locations: the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa in Malibu.

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The J. Paul Getty Museum collects in seven distinct areas, including Greek and Roman antiquities, European paintings, drawings, manuscripts, sculpture, and decorative arts, and European and American photographs. The Museum's mission is to make the collection meaningful and attractive to a broad audience by presenting and interpreting the works of art through educational programs, special exhibitions, publications, conservation, and research.