‘Is painting done to be looked at? Do you understand me? One works for two or three friends who are alive and for others who are dead or unknown. Is it any business of journalists if I make pictures, boots, or cloth slippers? Painting concerns one’s private life.’
E. Degas, quoted in R.F. Johnson, exh. cat., Edgar Degas, The Private Impressionist: Works on Paper by the Artist and His Circle, Naples 2011, p. iii.
‘If the viewer’s own eyes wander over the pictorial field, he is always drawn back to this penetrating gaze. This phenomenon is common to all Degas’s self-portraits: the large, dark, questioning, wondering eyes are always at the centre of the pictorial expression.’
F. Baumann, ‘Degas’s Early Self-Portraits’ in exh. cat., Degas: Portraits, Zurich 1994, p. 168.
Executed circa 1854, Autoportrait provides a fascinating insight into the life of a young Edgar Degas on the brink of what was to become a prolific and prosperous career. The artist has presented himself with a cool detachment and poised demeanour: he looks out self-assuredly beyond the picture plane, his head turned in three-quarter profile to meet the gaze of the viewer. Rendered in peinture à l’essence on paper and subsequently laid down on canvas, the drawing was produced during a period in which the artist experimented with a large number of self-portrait studies in various media. Such works, composed at the start of the artist’s twenties, mark a time of great transition between adolescence and adulthood, and it is of little wonder that the pensive Degas turned his probing artist’s eye upon himself during these years.
An age of self-doubt as much as self-discovery, this universal moment of impending maturity naturally awakens an intense scrutiny of selfhood. The level of devotion with which Degas reflected on his own image during this early period of his career, however, suggests something more than a straightforward questioning of his own identity. Indeed, throughout his life, the artist showed deep reverence for the Old Masters: in the years preceding the present work’s creation, he had registered as a copyist in the Louvre – a pastime that would continue to engage him well into middle age. Here, he would contemplate, admire and sketch from the work of the great artists before him. Steeped in the traditions of the past, Degas’ Autoportrait expresses an awareness of the self-portraiture of Rembrandt, Ingres, and Delacroix, boldly asserting himself within the canon of art history.
Degas was born into an affluent banking family in Paris in 1834. The eldest of five children, he expressed an interest in the arts from an early age, and by his eighteenth year had converted a room in his home into an artist’s studio. His father expected him to pursue a career in law and so, in 1853, Degas enrolled at the Faculty of Law at the University of Paris. It was a short lived affair: unenthused, he sought refuge in his art – and self-portraiture – and by 1855 had been accepted into the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts. In this same year he met Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, whose famous advice, to, ‘Draw lines, young man, and still more lines, both from life and from memory, and you will become a good artist’, remained a source of inspiration throughout his life (Ingres, quoted in A. Werner, Degas Pastels, New York, 1969, p. 14). Degas adhered closely to the traditional rules of painting. He studied drawing under Louis Lamothe, a former student of Ingres, and rejected the en plein air approach of his Impressionist contemporaries, preferring to work from preparatory studies in the academic manner.
In 1856, Degas travelled to Italy, where he embarked on his own Grand Tour in Naples, Rome and Florence. He stayed for three formative years, copying works by Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian, and making both history paintings and portraits. It was in Naples in 1856, whilst staying with his aunt’s family, that he made the first studies for his early masterpiece The Bellelli Family, 1858-67. A very accomplished painter of the human subject, Degas was, as Paul Jamot noted in 1931, ‘among the great portraitists of all time, from Holbein to Ingres’ (P. Jamot, quoted in ibid., 1994, p. 17).
Degas’ portraits grapple with the complexities of the human psyche. Renowned for his depictions of ballet dancers, the artist was drawn not to the climatic excitement of the performance itself, but rather to the quieter moments that took place behind the scenes. Entranced by these instants of unmasked and unfeigned reality, Degas sought to capture a sense of his subjects’ inner worlds. The same can be noted in his early self-portraits: cut with a raw psychological intensity, works such as the present seem to reflect on the ultimate solitude of the human condition. A deeply private man, Degas lived in increasing isolation towards the end of his life, distancing himself from his peers and indeed, in this early work on paper, one gains a sense of the artist’s serious countenance and pensive inward eye.
Composed with a sketchy quality in sepia hues, the artist presents himself facing outwards, a steadfast and unwavering glint in his eyes, as if confronting the fleeting transience of life. As Felix Baumann has written, ‘if the viewer’s own eyes wander over the pictorial field, he is always drawn back to this penetrating gaze. This phenomenon is common to all Degas’ self-portraits: the large, dark, questioning, wondering eyes are always at the centre of the pictorial expression’ (F. Baumann, ‘Degas’s Early Self-Portraits’ in ibid., p. 168).