Looking at Art

Dancing with Degas

An exhibition explores Picasso's seven-decade obsession with a man he saw as not only an artistic predecessor but also a father figure.

Picasso made a number of paintings, prints, and drawings based on Degas’s In a Café (L’Absinthe), 1875–76.


Both artists lived in Montmartre. They had models and friends in common but probably never met. The older man was aloof, aristocratic, firmly established as one of the leading painters and sculptors of his day. The younger was the fresh talent on the block, the newcomer from Barcelona with burning ambition and prodigious energy. And though the two were separated by almost half a century in age and by temperament and background, Pablo Picasso, from his student days to the end of his life, would remain obsessed with Edgar Degas.

The exhibition “Picasso Looks at Degas,” organized by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, brings together more than 100 works demonstrating Picasso’s enduring fascination with Degas.

“My argument is that Degas was one of the artists Picasso never got out of his system,” says Richard Kendall, the Clark Institute’s curator-at-large. “He gets into the ring with Degas, and then he retires slightly bruised, and then he gets back into the ring maybe another ten years later when something inspires him to rediscover Degas.”

Kendall, a scholar of Impressionism who has explored Degas’s impact on 20th-century art in previous exhibitions, proposed the show ten years ago to Elizabeth Cowling, professor emeritus of art history at the University of Edinburgh and an expert on Picasso. In researching the bond between the two artists, they discovered that Picasso was probably aware of Degas’s works as a student in Barcelona. “He would have learned about Degas from older Spanish artists with whom he was in contact and from artists who had spent time in Paris,” says Cowling. “But he wouldn’t actually have seen any originals until he started going to Paris to visit, in 1900.”

One of the first works to engage Picasso, a year before he settled in Montmartre at the age of 23, was Degas’s In a Café (L’Absinthe), 1875–76, a painting that caused a scandal in its day for its unsparing portrayal of a low-life pair—the woman clearly a prostitute—dejectedly drinking in a café. “Picasso made a whole series of drawings and paintings and prints that turn on exactly the same theme,” Cowling says. “Usually a couple, but sometimes just a woman by herself, slumped at a café table with booze at hand and mirrors in the background.”

An early response to In a Café was the 1903 portrait of Sebastià Junyer Vidal, Picasso’s Catalan friend, with an unidentified woman who is most likely a streetwalker. A work from the artist’s Blue Period, the painting echoes the somber mood of Degas’s without exactly reproducing the subject or the composition. “As far as Picasso was concerned, the art of other artists was a stimulus,” Cowling explains. “It wasn’t something he slavishly copied.”

Another pairing in the exhibition pits Degas’s famous sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1880–81) against Picasso’s Standing Nude, a Cubist work from 1907. The figure’s cocky, confident stance is similar in both works, but the treatment is very different; Picasso’s hatchet-faced female perhaps even injects a note of parody into the “homage.” The Degas dancer “haunts the exhibition,” Cowling says, “because right at the end of his life, when Picasso made a whole series of etchings based on works by Degas he had collected, he put Degas himself in the pose of the ballerina.”

Degas famously remarked of Cubism that it was harder to do than painting, but Kendall doesn’t regard this statement as necessarily dismissive. “He’s saying, ‘These guys have got something and it’s even beyond what I’ve been doing.’ He was remarkably tolerant of and encouraging toward young artists. He didn’t deny the value in their work.” Nonetheless, Picasso and his artist friends were fond of staging mock critiques at the Bateau-Lavoir, a communal studio building in Montmartre. In a game called Faire Degas (roughly, Pretend to Be Degas), “one of them would impersonate Degas—or some other famous artist or writer of the previous generation—coming to the studio and criticizing Picasso’s latest work,” says Cowling. Adds Kendall, “They used really foul language, the joke being that Degas came on in public as very proper, very polite, so the idea of these coarse words coming out of Degas’s mouth was doubly funny.”

At different points in his career, Picasso made use of themes that had fascinated Degas: women at their toilettes, laundresses at work, and the louche denizens of brothels and their clientele. The curators see Picasso’s monstrous Nude Wringing Her Hair of 1952 as a takeoff on such Degas works as Combing the Hair (La Coiffure) of ca. 1892–96. The latter painting belonged for a while to Matisse, with whom Picasso had an on-again, off-again friendship. “This is Picasso still clinging to a great theme for Degas, which was also a popular subject for Ingres,” Kendall notes. “And he’s saying, ‘I must conquer, I must make it my own again.’ It takes an extreme form and very pronounced draftsmanship, and transforms the color, but Degas is still in the back of his mind.”

Degas himself, as a dapper older gentleman from a bygone era, shows up in many of Picasso’s later prints, etchings, and drawings of brothel scenes, most of them dating from the 1970s. “You see Degas peering into the brothel from the side, standing in the brothel with his sketchbook, doing drawings,” says Kendall. “You see Degas with lines coming out of his eyes going straight to the sexual parts of the naked women.” These pictures marked the last time Picasso would engage with Degas, and Kendall sees in them a sometimes sympathetic, sometimes mocking gamesmanship, “showing Degas in all these guises, and particularly as a guilty bourgeois looking at this squalid scene, a clearly sexually repressed man who is in a brothel but doesn’t quite know what to do.”

Both Degas and Picasso, the curators point out, had complicated relationships with women. The younger artist’s many affairs and marriages have been amply documented and dissected, but Degas—who remained a bachelor and has occasionally been branded a misogynist—is more mysterious in terms of his private life. “We don’t know of anybody with whom he had an affair,” says Cowling, “but there are small references in his papers which tell us that in fact he did have some sexual contact, probably with prostitutes and models. There was never a lover, though, whose name has come down to us.”

Both artists, as the show makes clear, were “utterly obsessed with women and their lives,” Cowling says. “Women are for them the center of the universe. There are hardly any men in our exhibition at all. For Picasso, women became the vehicle for expression, and I think that’s also primarily the case with Degas.”

Cowling also notes the strong resemblances between Picasso’s portraits of his father and his images of Degas—down to the long beard and haughty mien. “Picasso became convinced in later life that Degas looked like his father,” she says. “He owned a photograph of Degas, which was in fact taken by Degas himself, and he remarked to his friends, including [his biographer] John Richardson, on the similarities.” Could there be Freudian undertones in the younger artist’s frequent jousts with Degas? “I think that’s a very true observation and not many people have said it, but I believe this is the case,” says Kendall. “There is a sense in which Degas became an artistic father figure and a psychological-emotional father figure.”

Throughout his career, Picasso wrestled with other major forebears—most notably Cézanne and Velázquez—in addition to Degas. “He felt strongly that he was part of a lineage,” Cowling says. “He wasn’t floating free from the rest of the history of art.” But Degas seems to have been a special case. “Picasso responds not just to Degas the artist, but to Degas the man,” says Kendall. “Degas was a very complex individual that not many people really got. And Picasso got him. He realized that he was repressed, he was tormented. For all his outward facade of propriety, he had all kinds of neuroses and tensions in his personal history and in relationships with modern life and tradition. Picasso saw through all that nonsense. He realized there was this complicated, conflicted man, and that’s the artist he engages with.”

“Picasso Looks at Degas” will be at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, from June 13 through September 12 and will travel to the Museu Picasso in Barcelona this fall.

Ann Landi is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

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