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Time for Art: The Effects of Degas' Historical and Personal Timelines on Artwork
Timelines can have varying effects on the artwork produced by artists. The first thought is of an historical timeline (overarching events that are generally studied in history/social studies classes), but sometimes the artist’s personal life is overlooked, which can provide a new perspective in the analyses of their paintings. For example, Edgar Degas began his career with many oil paintings and sketches, mainly centering around equines and equestrian sports. His paintings took an overall shift to embrace a lens focused on industrialism in 1870-1871 known as the Second Industrial Revolution which, although slower in France than in other parts of Europe, provided “the beginnings of [national] and regional economies.” Three years later, Degas began taking an interest in Parisian cafes, dance studios, theatres, operas, etc., marking the start of his theme of ballerina paintings and sketches. In the late 1870s, his sculptures became more prominent, likely the result of deteriorating eyesight, showing the same love of creating art but an inability to create paintings.
In this essay, I analyze two pieces of Degas’ that mark two greatest stages of his artwork and interpret them through three main points: scene, agency of the work, and agency of the audience. These lenses work to explore how the setting, the components of the piece (the artist’s timeline being one of them), and the interaction of the audience work to affect the way artwork is interpreted, and that interpretation can still be applicable today. Horses in a Meadow represents the beginning stage of his oil paintings and sketches that centered around equine subjects and industrial life, and Little Dancer Aged Fourteen represents the shift in Degas’ work after he took an interest in a more elegant side of ordinary life as well as his time as an artist with failing eyesight.
As the title of Horses in a Meadow suggests, the piece is of two horses standing in a meadow, mourning the sight of three oncoming boats in the river. On the other side of the river, three more horses stand, spread out, on a grassy plateau. The two horses that overlook the steamboats are highlighted since they are at the forefront of the painting, making them the main subjects of the painting. The steamboats themselves get a brief moment of attention first since we read the image from left to right. The other three horses, on the other hand, blend in with the landscape they stand on, taking the viewer a closer reading of the image to notice them at all. The main conflict of the painting resides in the two main equines’ reaction to the steamboats. One horse nuzzles the other as the boats pass by, similar to the way in which a man may drape his arm over a lady’s shoulders, resting their heads on top of each other while sitting on a park bench, gazing off into the gloomy setting before them. The steamboats persist on their course, nothing in their way except for the apparent melancholy in the two main characters in the composition.
The dreary scene and muted colors of the piece are not the only components that give light to interpreting Horses in a Meadow; one must keep in mind the scene of the artist’s life in order to understand the greater context surrounding the piece. Around the time that Degas created this painting, the Second Industrial Revolution had begun. This key bit of information allows us to make the connection of the subjects in the painting: all five horses represent the agricultural -- or the “old” -- ways of life that came before the industrial era, represented by the steamboats. The two in focus more specifically symbolize the reactions that farmers and other field workers likely had toward the Industrial Revolution, and the horses in the background represent the impact upon agricultural ways of life; they tend to fade into the background, becoming more sparse and are separated from the majority of the modern life.
One might argue that Degas did not necessarily have a negative view of the Industrial Revolution, which would therefore create the possibility for other interpretations, especially ones opposing the interpretation above. If Degas was fond of the Industrial Revolution, then the horses could be nuzzling each other in a bitter-sweet goodbye to the old focus on agriculture but say hello to a brighter future of industrialization; however, Alina Cohen, a Brooklyn-based arts and culture writer, says:
A focus on their interest in bourgeois [pastimes belies the] more complicated realities of these artists’ changing urban surroundings and the politics of the day. Alongside Impressionism, the advent of modernity ushered in international turmoil, concerns over labor conditions, and rampant pollution…Rapid population growth among the lower classes taxes urban centers, while the Industrial Revolution turned blue skies gray and pumped sewage into once picturesque rivers.
Cohen later cites some of Degas’ other work in her article, but the point remains the same: the art of Impressionists, including Degas, reflected the downsides of Industrialism as that was the majority of what they saw and experienced, and “offered a corrective to the academic emphasis on the figure and encouragement to return to the traditionally American theme of nature,” as Helene Barbara Weinberg, Doreen Bolger, and David Park Curry say.
Understanding the negative effects of the Industrial Revolution and the influences on Degas’ art is essential for a viewer to interpret the painting and start the process of reaching a cohesive reading of the image. Just looking at the scene and assuming symbolism is not sufficient to conclude that Degas’ work is mourning the rise of industrialism. A viewer can conclude industrialism at least plays a part, but in order to conclude that the painting promotes a response of mourning to the spreading industrialism, we must also look at the agent of the work.
The main agents are the two horses placed at the front of the painting. One is nuzzling the other in a sad but comforting way, like a man putting his arm around a woman. But before the viewer ponders the role of main agents, the viewer briefly notices the steamboats (the object about which is supposedly being mourned) about to pass by the horses, redirecting the viewer’s attention back toward the equines and their reaction to the oncoming boats. The left to right composition allows for an act and reaction interpretation: the act, the oncoming rise in industrialism, is met with the reaction, the sadness and hopelessness that people with more agricultural livelihoods must have felt.
Each agent has been strategically and purposefully placed. The main goal of the horses would be reversing all the effects of the increase in industrialism and have a return to the old ways of life that everyone was used to. But one must ask: is that goal a success or a failure? It is obviously the latter; the horses, which represent the agricultural community, are unable to do anything by themselves to change the inevitability of the steamboats approaching them. The agricultural community helplessly looks on in sadness as industrialism prepares to dock by their land. They know they are unable to do anything about their situation, leaving them hopelessly melancholy.
The main intention and message of the artist involves some thought of his or her audience. The message behind Horses in a Meadow is apparent, but why would Degas even create this work in the first place? The main reason would be to draw people’s attention to the painting through the initial emotions triggered by his work, rather than the composition of the painting itself, and have the viewer leave with a minimal feeling of change within them. But this is strange. Normally, one would want viewers to walk away from his or her painting with some sense of change within them, so we are left with two questions: how does Degas leave his audience with a minimal feeling of change, and why?
First, I will answer the question of how. Degas chose to use earthy colors to match a somewhat everyday landscape, but they are duller and more muted than the vibrant greens, yellows, and browns that are seen everyday. This everyday color palette does not differ much from those used in Degas’ other paintings, nor do the muted colors stand out amongst other Impressionistic paintings. The colors of impressionistic paintings in general range from lighter, happier colors to the dull, solemn ones Degas uses in Horses in a Meadow, so the basic colors chosen create an intentional setting. The colors blend in with each other, which creates an easy flow of movement across the painting. The unnatural factor of these colors which draws us in is the gloominess that results from the dulled, earthy tones. This allows the viewer to understand that the horses’ actions are ones of comfort in times of trial rather than ones of hope in times of tribulation.
Degas’ muted color palette is not the only feature that captures an emotion of discomfort. There are also two dividing factors of the painting that contribute to this tone. One is the river on which the steamboat travels. One could argue that the river works harmoniously with the rest of the painting, even though it provides a sense of tension as it literally divides the painting, because of the way Degas blends his colors. If everything had been working in harmony, this would mean that the horses are not mourning the oncoming of an evil but that of a slowly oncoming change whose effects blend in with the rest of everyday life. The river runs through the middle of the painting, separating the horses near from the horses far. It might add a peaceful and calming factor to the rest of the work, but the discomfort and tension rises from two attributes of the river. First, it carries the steamboat, which the horses seem to be grieving. Additionally, it contains a murky reflection of the blue sky above. The steamboat is supposed to add an untrustworthy aspect to the river as it lurks in the murky brown waters on the far end of the river. But the river also shows the way “the Industrial Revolution turned blue skies gray.” The unfavorable reflection of the sky in the river poetically reflects Degas’, and the more general Impressionists, perspective of pollution and how it decreased the quality of their once beautiful and picturesque landscapes. The separation of horses, which alienates those who were partial to the Industrial Revolution from those who were not, shows that this change had its complications that some did not recognize.
The other dividing factor is the crevice in the ground. It separates the horses in the distance from a field which is even more distant. The ends of the crevice may be blended in with the rest of the ground, but it still creates tension, even further representing a separation between the people from agricultural backgrounds and their homes.
The viewer feels the tension and discomfort that was mentioned earlier, and that is what first draws our attention to Horses in a Meadow. I would say those elements that first stole our gaze are the same ones that leave us walking away with a minimal impression of the piece. But one question remains: why would Degas allow his painting to attract a few people’s attention only to be forgotten within a few seconds? The natural human response seems to want their work recognized and remembered, so it is strange that Degas would have it be a painting so easily forgotten, temporarily, at the very least. The answer to the question is simple. Degas has his audience assume a role in the message of this painting. -- Like the horses in the distance, the people who were once devoted to agricultural life ended up investing into industrialism. We become attracted to the painting through the emotions we initially have towards the painting, feeling the discomfort and tension with the Industrial Revolution, but once we walk away, we forget that that tension ever existed, like so many did in response to the hopelessness of those who remained invested in agriculture, and we blend into the rest of our scenery.
Horses in a Meadow was painted to show that we, who have invested so much in industrialism, have ignored and forgotten those who mourned the impacts of the Industrial Revolution on agricultural life, the ones who remain in the forefront of the painting. The horses in the background separated from the horses in the foreground of the painting reflect our distance and separation from those who have been left alone to mourn the old ways of life and the effects that the new ways have on our world, especially in nature. Impressionists focused on this, making known what effects the Industrial Revolution had on the beautiful scenery that the rest of us miss out on. Every last detail of Degas’ Impressionistic painting contributes to this interpretation, but a key factor in the final decision of this piece is the historical context around Degas’ life; otherwise, Horses in a Meadow is just another painting of seemingly ordinary farm life with perhaps no real message to give. But if the historical events around Degas’ life are taken into consideration, viewers stop to think about the world at the time from the Impressionists’ point of view, leaving more of a contemplative impression on them, rather than resulting in them walking away with little memory of the painting.
Not only can elements of an historical timeline allow for a fuller interpretation of artwork, but the artist’s personal timeline can aid our interpreting as well. For example, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen was the most notable piece that marked his shift from detailed paintings and sketches to more statues and slightly less detailed sketches and paintings. This is largely due to the fact that Degas’ eyesight started worsening, making it more difficult for him to create certain types of art. Degas first noticed a blind spot in his right eye during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-1871, and by 1890 he had started losing sight in his left eye as well. Statues, while detailed and time consuming, require a different kind of attention than the details of an oil painting, which need colors mixed, a steady hand and an eye to glide a fine paintbrush across the canvas.
The Little Dancer is a wax statuette, allowing the space around the girl to be a blank canvas; however, understanding the agency of the artwork gives more context for the scene. The leotard, ballet slippers on the feet placed in the fourth position, and braided-back hair insinuate that the girl is at a recital or practice. Her arms are stretched elegantly behind her back, and her chin is tilted up in a bit of a strained manner as if she is preparing to dance. From these details, the scene of a stage or a ballet classroom can be visualized, as the context of her outfit and makeup overall point to this sort of backdrop.
Interestingly, the Little Dancer herself caused some controversy. Ilyana Karthas, a history professor at the University of Missouri, writes
Two-thirds life size and adorned with a horse hair wig, a green satin ribbon, a tattered mid-thigh tulle and gauze tutu, a silk bodice, and pink ballet slippers, it outraged many spectators' sense of propriety. Unlike the dreamy, idealistic representations of romantic ballerinas, it was violently criticized for its excessive realism and for the expression of “bestial boldness” of the ballet girl who was said more to resemble a “girl-monkey” than a sylph.
Degas’ artistic choices behind this piece did not just outrage his contemporaries. As people have studied the dancer herself as well as the criticism towards her, more theories about Degas and his other works have arisen.
In Degas’ day, dancers were explicitly instructed to project their charms at the audience: to always wear a “lively expression” and exhibit “seductive grace,” as the balletomane Georges Duval insisted in his 1875 manual. In the Little Dancer, by contrast, Degas presented an awkward adolescent dressed in the plainest of practice attire.
Due to the former bit of information, Degas today has been accused of being a sort of pedophile as he worked with these younger figures who were known to have a seductive air about them; however, even though he painted somewhat seductive figures in his romantic, Impressionistic paintings, Degas chose to portray a more realistic and, as DeVonyar and Kendall say in the quote above, “awkward” novice dancer. Again, the question of why Degas chose to portray his artwork differently can be answered by looking at the audience.
The reason for and message of creating a statue of a realistic-looking girl can either be due to Degas’ personal reasons or it can have a larger message for his audience. The personal reason would be due to his deteriorating eyesight, which would affect his ability to see fine details in paintings, thus the rather realistic statuette rather than a painting of one. The personal message was an implicit claim that all his time spent around women who practiced a seductive art was not for his own lustful satisfaction. The larger reason and message to his audience would be because the Opéra classrooms were “famously inaccessible to all but a few authorized visitors.” Due to this limited access, the average person would only know what ballerinas looked like from the typical romantic painting and the captivating stage, which was a ballerina’s “natural habitat.”
Little Dancer Aged Fourteen would give an imperfect yet realistic depiction of the behind-the-scenes of each perfect performance and Impressionistic image, showing that things are not always what they seem. The audience anticipates the graceful and elegant performance of their dancing entertainers when they expect either a performance or an art piece, but once they are met with a sight that contradicts their dreamy expectations, the natural response is one of disgust. Those expectations are based on what they see, and what they see puts their romanticized images of ballerinas into question. This hole in the viewer’s understanding becomes a peephole to the backstage practice rooms and dance studios where the girls and women worked so hard. This is the perspective which Degas shows with his Little Dancer.
Many people believe in the theory that Degas was secretly some sort of lustful pedophile because he spent so much time around ballerinas and women in general. But the authorized access about which DeVonyar and Kendall talk is actually an indicator that this theory is simply not true. It seems simple for the Opéra to unauthorize access to anyone as easily as they can authorize it. Degas spent so much time painting seductive-looking women and girls that if an instructor sensed something might have been terribly off about this behavior, access would have been unauthorized. Of course, people would still think what they would like, otherwise the pedophile controversy would not still exist, but the realistic style of the Little Dancer should contribute to oppose that theory. But if an instructor had actually warned Degas or called him out in some fashion, the pedophilic argument might still stand.
The statuette can have another message for Degas’ contemporaries. He may have been expressing the idea that the perfect performances and Impressionistic images that most people were familiar with of ballerinas portrayed a romanticized version; backstage was much different from the average idea of ballerinas. Because the majority of France’s population was not allowed backstage, they were not familiar with the amount of time and effort that the dancers would put into what was a main source of the country’s entertainment. This explains the initial reaction of disgust towards the Little Dancer The French did not like the idea of an elegant, romantic model looking awkward or tense. They much preferred their dreamy, graceful entertainers so they did not have to think about the tensions of life. Similarly, even to this day we prefer the flawless performances of actors and actresses rather than watching credits to appreciate all of the hard work that goes into the making of the project.
Throughout his artistic career, Degas depicted scenes of the working class, whether it be of the rural lands and equines or the hard practice ballerinas put into their graceful performances. As the Industrial Revolution was a more prominent event in the early 1870s, Degas focused his artwork more on the natural effects the movement had, showing that ease and better quality were not the only outcomes produced. As his eyesight worsened, it would be easier to turn to a life of creating statues and figurines as they do not require as much detail as paintings, and so the legacy of the Little Dancer began. Degas had moved to an environment where he could still create artwork centered around the working class while at the same time adjusting to the limitations and boundaries his life had provided.
The main message Degas leaves in these two pieces of work is surprisingly still applicable to our lives today. Even today, we see a lack in thought of the hard work or consequences of our entertainment and ease. Just like the bourgeois’ reaction to the natural consequences of a better quality of life with more ease, we sometimes ignore the consequences our actions can have on our environment as well, all so that we can have better means of travel, sight, everyday chores, etc. We do try to contribute to our environment and use those resources given to us, for instance, when we find and use sources of renewable energy (like harvesting the power of the sun or the wind) to power our electricity. This is the general mindset that people have when we go about our everyday lives: we do not stop to think about how carbon emissions could be harming the environment; we do not stop to think about how our constant construction of new cities and towns have already destroyed some ecosystems; we do not stop to think about how many more ecosystems we still are destroying.
It seems like a human tendency, since our population is growing, and so we find the need to accommodate it. This is not necessarily negative. Rather, it is only that we,like the bourgeois, generally only see the benefits of Industrialism rather than think of the consequences that could befall others, like the lack of blue skies and picturesque rivers depicted in Degas’ painting. Today, the largest voices speaking to this issue are environmentalists, and generally, we turn a deaf ear, each taking his or her own opinion, for better or for worse. Degas and other Impressionists argued this ignorance had negative consequences for society.
From Degas’ perspective, we not only have a lack of interest toward the environment we may be harming, but we also tend to prefer our entertainment -- the result of much hard work -- rather than think about the labor that has gone into the making of the project. The verity of this claim can be found by asking a simple question: do we stop to think about all the hours, days, and months that hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of people have put into the making of a movie or TV show? Most people would say no. The farthest extent to which we would recognize some of this work would be by acknowledging the cool special effects and flawless acting, as a couple of examples. Sometimes we would even see what it is like behind the scenes, but most of the time, it seems even that is for the purpose of entertainment as well, not for the reason of seeing how hard it is to be one of the people on the screen or one of the people helping them behind the scenes.
The human mindset really has not changed much in the past century and a half. But it is hard to argue against this, seeing as we skip past the ending credits of movies, finding them an obstacle to our overall enjoyment, like the audience in ninteenth century France found the thought of “awkward novice dancers” to be repulsive and a stain on a main source of their entertainment.
Both of Degas’ art pieces show that things are not always what they seem; with the coming of the Industrial Revolution and the scene of the ballet, the benefits of each cloud their faults as people focused on the beauty of ease and entertainment rather than paying attention to effects, such as pollution and unnoticed hard work, which we would rather ignore.
It seems like nothing has changed, so is there a hope that someday it will? Degas’ work is the start of the answer. Even if we still have an attitude of indifference toward the consequences our Industrialized actions may have on the environment, and even if we would rather remain ignorant toward the hard work put into our entertainment, the difference between now and then is that we at least have a better understanding of this indifference and ignorance. The movement of the Impressionists and the reactions of disgust were signs of the people’s ignorance to the effects that certain everyday events had on others, but with a deeper analysis and interpretation of Degas’ artwork at least, we at least have made a start to being more aware of this ignorance.
Cohen, Alina. “Harsh Realities Lurk behind Picturesque Impressionistic Masterpieces.” March 7, 2019. artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-harsh-realities-lurk-picturesque-impressionist-masterpieces.
DeVonyar, Jill and Richard Kendall. “The Class of 1881: Degas, Drawing, and the “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.” Master Drawings 41, no. 2 (Summer 2003): 151-162. jstor.org/stable/1554585.
Karthas, Ilyana. “The Politics of Gender and the Revival of Ballet in Early Twentieth Century France.” Journal of Social history 45, no. 4 (2012): 960-989. jstor.org/stable/41678946.
Mytholoke. “Industrialization in France.” The France of Victor Hugo: The Working Classes in Revolutionary France. Accessed October 14, 2020. mtholyoke.edu/courses/rschwart/hist255/la/industrialization.html.
National Gallery of Art. “Horses in a Meadow, 1871.” Accessed October 14, 2020. nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.91222.html.
National Gallery of Art. “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1878-1881.” Accessed October 14, 2020. nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.110292.html.
University of Missouri. “College of Arts and Science: History.” Last updated 2020. history.missouri.edu/people/karthas.
Weinberg, Helene Barbara, Doreen Bolger, and David Park Curry. “American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885-1915.” Accessed February 6, 2021. books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=qC8qxlR4km4C&oi=fnd&pg=PR10&dq=french+impressionists+like+industrialization&ots=7OlFcmHHqL&sig=M_KIeQovq2ioedrVqID5Pq7Utz8#v=onepage&q=impressionist&f=false.