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Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
MASTERS OF MODERNISM: THREE IMPORTANT SELF-PORTRAITS FROM A DISTINGUISHED EUROPEAN COLLECTIONAlong with the genres of landscape and still-life, portraiture was radically reconfigured in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. Freed from the bounds of reality, the depiction of the human figure became the site of countless stylistic and formal deformations and pictorial explorations. No longer was a recognisable likeness the principle aim, instead, colour, line and form became compositional devices with which to impart details about the subject or indeed, the artist’s own impression of them. Christie’s is honoured to present the following works by three masters of the modern era: Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso. Forming part of an esteemed and carefully assembled private collection, these works encapsulate the breadth and diversity of modernist portraiture. Stretching from Impressionism and Post-Impressionism through to the origins of Cubism in the opening years of the Twentieth Century, each of these exquisite works on paper encapsulate these artists’ approaches both to portraiture, and to their art as a whole, revealing distinctive and individual stylistic traits. Dating from the beginning of these artist’s careers, these exquisite works on paper are imbued with an intimacy and a spirit of exploration, both formal, and, in Degas’ and Cézanne’s case, into their own identity. In Degas’ Autoportrait from around 1854, the artist has presented himself with all the poise and self-assurance of a man on the brink of success, while in Cézanne’s Autoportrait, he has portrayed himself as a rebellious, defiant artist, his dark-eyed stare as hypnotic today as it was when it was executed in the mid-1870s. The self-portrait is a genre that, for all its seeming legibility, remains steeped in enigma. Ultimately it is a staged and self-styled presentation of the artist’s self, a visual construct that can serve as an artistic manifesto, or an autobiographical or stylistic marker in the journey of their art. Picasso’s relationship with self-portraiture is complex and multi-faceted; as much an embodiment of his outward identity as an artist, as a portrayal of his complex inner character as a man. However, in the 1909 Tête d’homme presented here, it is not his own image he has looked at, but rather, an anonymous, stylised, mask-like ‘type’ that appears as a carved, sculpted head. Portraiture was an essential part of Picasso’s Cubism, allowing the artist to scrutinise and analyse the very nature of representation itself. As a result, the artist created an entirely new pictorial vocabulary, which would come to alter the entire trajectory not just of Twentieth Century portraiture, but art as a whole.
Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

Autoportrait

Details
Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Autoportrait
peinture à l'essence and gouache on prepared paper laid down on stretched canvas
15 5/8 x 12 1/8 in. (39.7 x 30.7 cm.)
Executed circa 1854
Provenance
Wilhelm Weinberg, Scarsdale, New York, and thence by descent; estate sale, Sotheby's, London, 10 July 1957, lot 19.
Sir Edward & Lady Hulton, London, by 1964.
Marlborough Fine Art, London.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1981.
Literature
M. Guérin & P.-A. Lemoisne, Dix-neuf portraits de Degas par lui même, Paris, 1931, no. 6 (illustrated).
P.-A. Lemoisne, L'amour de d'Art, Paris, July 1931, p. 284 (illustrated).
P.-A. Lemoisne, Degas et son œuvre, vol. II, Paris, 1946, no. 3 (illustrated).
The Burlington Magazine, vol. 99, no. 651, June 1957, p. xiv (illustrated).
J. Sutherland Boggs, Portraits by Degas, Berkeley & Los Angeles, 1962, notes 31 & 33, pp. 9 & 87.
F. Russoli, ed., L'opera completa di Degas, Milan, 1970, no. 111, p. 91 (illustrated).
Exhibited
New York, Galerie Seligmann, Degas, October - November 1930.
Paris, Musée de l'Orangerie, Degas, 1931, no. 3 (dated 'circa 1854-1855').
Rotterdam, Museum Boymans Van Beuningen, Verzameling Sir Edward en Lady Hulton, Londen, November 1964 - January 1965, no. 8 (illustrated); this exhibition later travelled to Munich, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, April - May 1965; Dortmund, Museum am Ostwall, July 1965; and Frankfurt, Frankfurter Kunstverein Steinernes Haus, 1965.
Sale room notice
Please note that the provenance for this work should read as follows, and not as stated in the printed catalogue:
Wilhelm Weinberg, Scarsdale, New York, and thence by descent; estate sale, Sotheby's, London, 10 July 1957, lot 19.
Sir Edward & Lady Hulton, London, by 1964.
Marlborough Fine Art, London. Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1981.

Please note the additional literature for this work:
J. Sutherland Boggs, Portraits by Degas, Berkeley & Los Angeles, 1962, notes 31 & 33, pp. 9 & 87.
F. Russoli, ed., L'opera completa di Degas, Milan, 1970, no. 111, p. 91 (illustrated).

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Ottavia Marchitelli, Specialist Head of Works on Paper Sale
Ottavia Marchitelli, Specialist Head of Works on Paper Sale

Lot Essay

‘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).

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