How the Impressionists reinvented drawing
An exhibition of Degas’ works on paper at London’s National Gallery highlights the importance of drawing for the Impressionists. Here, co-curator Julien Domercq explains how these radical artists turned a working tool into a new art form
Edgar Degas’ Woman Looking through Field Glasses from circa 1869 is among the most playful works to have emerged from the Impressionist period. Julien Domercq, co-curator of Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell at the National Gallery in London, describes it as ‘one of the icons of Degas’s oeuvre; the embodiment of the act of looking itself.’
And yet in 1902, the drawing (shown below) failed to find a buyer when it was offered at auction. This proved fortunate for the people of Glasgow as its owner, Scottish shipping magnate Sir William Burrell, subsequently bequeathed Woman Looking through Field Glasses to his native city as part of an extraordinary collection that includes some of the artist’s most significant drawings. Drawn in Colour, which runs until 7 May, marks the first time the group of 20 pastels in the collection has been shown outside Scotland since its acquisition.
Before the last quarter of the 19th century, explains Domercq, ‘drawings were seen as working tools, ultimately leading to a more noble and finished product: paintings.’ The Impressionists did away with the hierarchical roles and functions of different media, with the result that ‘every step of an artist’s creative process became equally significant.’
Pissarro and the plein-air sketch
Alongside Degas, Domercq lists Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat and Camille Pissarro as the group’s most accomplished draughtsmen. Pissarro, who rarely left his home without a notebook and a set of hard and soft pencils, considered draughtsmanship ‘so vital’ that he deemed the pastels he produced of Parisian boulevards to be as important as his paintings of the same subject.
The work below, executed in gouache and black chalk, dates from the early 1880s, the most extensive period of pictorial experimentation in Pissarro’s career. As his technical logistics became more complex, involving greater studio work and increased preparatory drawing, the artist began to explore a wide range of media, including print-making, watercolour, and gouache. As Richard Brettell, an authority on French 19th-century painting, has explained, ‘These varied interests suggest a fundamental questioning of the kind of painting normally associated with Impressionism, the plein-air sketch, and a more complicated, highly mediated relationship with “reality.”’
How Seurat developed ‘a new kind of drawing’
While some artists liked to work in chalk and pastel, Georges Seurat frequently opted for greasy Conté crayon, with which he was able to convey the sense of light. The wide range of papers being introduced at the time allowed for greater experimentation, says Domercq, and helped him to develop ‘a new kind of drawing’. Working on highly textured paper, Seurat used the grain to produce drawings that were ‘dark, moody, and astonishingly beautiful’.
The artist’s unique use of Conté crayon and thick, textured Michallet paper can be clearly seen in La Promenade, above, on which the grooves of the mould in which this paper was made remain visible. Seurat was the first to master the combination of these two elements to create a colour-chart of greys, from intense black to the most vibrant light grey.
Seurat’s friend, the artist Paul Signac, surely had La Promenade in mind in 1899 when he wrote: ‘[Seurat] executed around 400 drawings, the most beautiful “painter’s drawings” that have ever existed. Because of this perfect mastery of values, it could be said that these “black and whites” are more luminous and more colourful than many paintings.’
Degas and Van Gogh: experiments in printmaking
In the 1870s Degas was introduced to monotypes, a form of printmaking made by drawing or painting on a smooth, non-absorbent surface. Immediately recognising its potential to expand the possibilities of drawing, he went on to produce more than 300 monotype prints through the mid 1890s. ‘For a man as meticulous as Degas,’ wrote art critic Ariella Budick, ‘monotype opened a door to spontaneity.’
By the early 1880s, Vincent van Gogh had started to experiment with lithography, or, more specifically, the lithographic crayon. Using this medium, he arrived at an elevated sense of expression in his drawings, a phenomenon he described as ‘Painting in Black’. As he explained to his brother Theo, the lithographic crayon allowed him to put into a drawing ‘the depth of effect and the rich gradations of tone that a painting should have’.
Oily, deep-black lithographic crayons were not ordinarily used for drawing. While crayon marks on a stone could be removed with a scraper, this was not possible with paper, which could be damaged. Van Gogh’s solution was to begin with a comprehensive drawing in carpenter’s pencil, before adding the dark areas in lithographic crayon on top. If the crayon needed to be scratched off, it would reveal the lighter pencil underneath, rather than harming the paper.
In Hoofd van een visser, driekwart naar rechts gekeerd (above) the grey of the graphite is the mid-tone, and the black of the lithographic crayon is used to further model the subject of the fisherman. The effect is a rich and deeply expressive drawing, which reveals the artist’s sensitivity to his subject and the skilful manipulation of his materials.
Degas’ invention of a new art
‘Degas’ willingness to experiment enabled him to develop a profound and unique understanding of his materials — and transcend their limits,’ Domercq explains. ‘His use of a particular medium influenced his practice in another. The pastels are as present, as complex and as magnificent as the paintings — and perhaps even more experimental.’
One hundred years after his death, Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell underlines this point by juxtaposing pastels with paintings. The Red Ballet Skirts (below) from the Burrell, for example, creates an impact that’s comparable to Combing the Hair, the National Gallery’s large oil painting.
The artist’s use of pastels evolved, moving away from the 18th-century method of blending pigments in a single layer before arriving at a technique that was entirely his own — one that added layers and involved the application of fixative.
By the 1890s, Degas was losing his eyesight, which many experts interpret as an explanation for the increasing boldness of his pastels. More important, Domercq believes, was the fact that by this time he had begun to collect works by younger artists such as Paul Gauguin and Van Gogh. ‘Gauguin’s expressive use of colour had a profound impact on him,’ explains the curator. ‘Degas was one of the very first people who understood Gauguin’s Polynesian works when they were first exhibited in Paris in 1894.’
Cézanne’s ‘Card Player’ paintings
For Paul Cézanne, the fluid character of painting in watercolour would increasingly influence his work in oil. L'homme à la pipe (below), together with its verso, Père Alexandre, forms a crucial component of Cézanne’s iconic ‘Card Player’ paintings, five works in oil that date from the first half of the 1890s. Only seven drawings and watercolours that Cézanne executed as studies for the ‘Card Players’ are known to exist.
The method and technique that Cézanne employed here — the successive positioning of the form-building taches of colour upon the white ground — is precisely the same as he would apply to the oil painting that lay waiting on his easel. The two media in which he customarily worked — oil paints and watercolours — possessed different properties, but Cézanne’s practice of using one or the other had become much the same by this point in his career.
An end in themselves — the commercial factor
Ultimately, the extent to which the Impressionists valued drawing is reflected in how frequently they chose to exhibit them. Drawings were a consistent feature in the eight group exhibitions they mounted between 1874 and 1886, accounting for 40 per cent of the works shown — far more than were displayed at the Salon. Degas, perhaps more than any of his peers, constantly exhibited drawings alongside his paintings at the Impressionist exhibitions.
A market for pastels had existed since the 18th century — viewed as a golden age for the medium — but the Impressionists went further by regarding drawings as an end in themselves. Along with their dealers, these artists were ‘very aware of the needs of the markets’, Domercq explains. ‘In the same way that their smaller-scale canvases were particularly well suited to the bourgeois interior, they quickly caught on to the growing commercial potential of graphic media.’
Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell is at the National Gallery, London, until 7 May 2018