Many visitors to the Museum of Modern Art’s show “Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty” will probably come for the French Impressionist’s paintings of ballet dancers, but they’ll also get a look at a less-known aspect of Degas’s work: his landscapes. For the January 1976 issue of ARTnews, Theodore Reff wrote an essay about the power of those landscapes. His essay, in which he writes that Degas would have been “one of the most interesting landscape painters of his time,” follows in full below. Earlier this week, Phyllis Tuchman reviewed MoMA’s show for these pages.
“The landscape painter Degas might have been”
By Theodore Reff
Had Degas chosen to develop the keen responsiveness to nature that is revealed in his notebooks, he would have been one of the most interesting landscape painters of his time
We do not think of Degas as an artist interested in landscape, and certainly he did not think of himself as such. Some of his most caustic remarks concerned what he considered the banality of “those who work from nature. What impudent humbugs! The landscapists!” He told André Gide. “When I meet one of them in the countryside, I want to fire away at him … There ought to be a police force for that purpose.” Even historians who, like P.-A. Lemoisne, fully appreciate the originality of Degas’ relatively few mature landscapes, such as the pastels he drew on the Channel coast in 1869 and the monotypes he made in Burgundy around 1890, feel obliged to conclude that “Degas is really ‘of nature,’ as he used to say, only occasionally. He is too much attracted by a thousand aspects of Parisian life to become interested for long in what happens outside it.”
What a revelation, then, are the panoramic views of cities and their environs, the subtle studies of the ocean and shore, the descriptions of sunsets, clouds and other natural phenomena, the copies after dramatic or picturesque Romantic landscapes that appear so often in his notebooks, especially in the first decade of his career. In preparing the catalogue of them that will be published shortly, I found evidence of a responsiveness to nature so keen and deeply felt that it would undoubtedly have made Degas, had he chosen to develop it further, one of the most interesting landscape painters of his time.
Initially, many of the notes and sketches in his early notebooks were intended as records of the places he visited while traveling in southern France and Italy. “A tourist without a camera,” he drew almost constantly during a summer spent in Lyons in 1855—his first away from Paris—filling his pocket notebook not only with copies after pictures and casts in the Palais des Arts, but with studies of the Palais itself, the Gothic facade of the cathedral, the city’s streets and quays, as well as of the Lyonnais mountains silhouetted behind it and the terraced slopes of the Rhône River in its suburbs. And on an excursion through Provence before returning to Paris in the fall, he drew in addition to the famous monuments of Ales, Nîmes and Avignon, such striking natural sites as the rugged hills overlooking Arles, the Rhône at Avignon with the Alps dimly seen beyond and the vast expanse of the Mediterranean as Sète on the coast. Having climbed to the top of Fort Richelieu to obtain that view, the 21-year old traveler noted in a tiny hand: “I wrote E d G on the last step of the stairway to the terrace.”
On the whole, however, these early studies were of the city and its architecture: it was only in Italy, where he moved in 1856, that Degas first treated landscapes as such. One of the earliest examples is the small Italian Landscape Seen from a Dormer Window, which can now be identified as a view of Capodimonte, outside Naples, and dated to the fall of that year, since there are studies for it in a notebook used then. Among them is a very finely shaded drawing, Italian Landscape, whose broad horizon and vivid illumination create an effect of outdoor space unprecedented in Degas’ work. In the same year he noted in the Naples museum, in addition to the inevitable Raphael portraits, “the most beautiful Claude Lorraine one can see. The sky is like silver and the shadows speak to you.” The landscapes he drew in Rome and its environs in the following year or two show a similar concern with outdoor light and atmosphere, in delicately rendered views over the city, in coastal scenes with extensive color notes and in his first studies of the sky alone, though other sketches are of such familiar topographical features as the Roman Forum and the Castel Sant’ Angelo.
The color notes, an increasingly important supplement to Degas’ notebook drawings from this time on, are themselves evidence of a landscapist’s sensibility, alter to the most vivid or fugitive effects in Nature. His annotations on a series of sketches of the countryside near Tivoli, for example, describe in extraordinary detail the changes in light, shadow and color that he observed in the 25 minutes separating the first from the last, and conclude with a remark reminiscent of those on Constable’s well-known cloud studies: “Very curious effect, in that there were two rays of light projected very visibly across the sky, but very lightly. Night fell in ten minutes at the latest. Tivoli, 5:10 p.m., 10 Nov. 57.”
The same devotion to recording fleeting conditions in nature is apparent throughout the travel journal Degas kept on his trip from Rome to Florence the following summer, writing in a condensed, almost telegraphic style whose abrupt rhythms and sudden shifts in tone convey perfectly the traveler’s interior monologue. Since much of this journal is familiar from Lemoisne’s transcription, only one passage, suggestive of the emotional quality of the young artist’s response to landscape, need to be quoted: “I look out at the plain — superb spectacle, I will remember that all my life …. The sun is setting on the side of the road to Florence; all those handsome planes of the mountains. What more beautiful time of day?”
It was, of course, a Romantic response, attuned to spectacular sunsets and panoramic views, as is already evident in the earliest example of such a view, a meticulously shaded drawing made in 1854 of Paris seen from the terrace of Mont Valérien. A slightly later view of Lyons and its environs and those already mentioned of the harbor at Sète and the city of Rome are further examples, as is a very fine, pale sketch made still later of medieval Siena with its Duomo and Palazzo Pubblico barely visible in the distance. The lyrical mood of these studies also informs several others of the sky alone — and not only in the vivid colors of sunset, but in the cool transparent tones of early morning, “tender blue and a little rose …. small rose clouds with blue shadows,” or in a warm afternoon light with luminous clouds massed above the horizon, or again in a bleak northern condition, half overcast, with streaks of gray cloud reminiscent of the skies in Delacroix’s pictures.
Equally Romantic in spirit is a rapid sketch, in a notebook of 1859, of cloud-like forms culminating in an image of two galloping horsemen, beneath which Degas noted: “The smoke of the locomotive cast shadows in the area and appeared to be an endless horde galloping endlessly up hill and down dale.” In a curious way, however, this interest in smoke as a source of suggestive imagery anticipates the more sober, naturalistic plan Degas outlined 20 years later to produce a series of pictures or prints on the different kinds of smoke in modern Paris.
Many other landscapes in the notebook of 1859, used largely after Degas returned from Italy, are also of Romantic inspiration; among others, a visionary palace set amidst pools and rocks, a small sailboat capsizing in a storm and a woman kneeling at a cenotaph under towering trees. But it is in the earlier section of Notebook 18, one of the largest and most interesting of all, that the full extent of his fascination with such subjects at this time becomes evident. Here too we find a dramatic shipwreck scene, its agitated waves and sky drawn with bold ben strokes; a bird’s-eye view of a Spanish hill town based on a print after David Roberts; and a free copy of Delacroix’s Ovid in Exile, dominated by its landscape setting. We also find more exotic images of nature — views of Thermopylae, Mount Olympus and other Greek sites, traces from the illustrations in an English edition of Homer; a very detailed drawing of the jungle on one of the Mariana Islands, copied from a travel publication; and a faded brown photograph of a man standing in a rocky ravine, apparently in the Near East — which testify to a Romantic taste for the picturesque and the remote.
In addition, there are in this notebook vivid pen studies of a mountainous, fortified region, used by Degas in painting Alexander and Bucephalus and The Daughter of Jephthah, pictures whose classical or biblical subjects gave full scope to his current interest in exotic scenery. In planning The Daughter of Jephthah, he wrote in another sketchbook: “The hill in the background in mournful sea-green tones,” appropriate to the tragic event he had chosen to depict. Here too he evidently had Delacroix in mind; for on a trip by sea to Naples the following year, he wrote: “The sea was of a greenish grey. How the sea in the picture of Demosthenes by Delacroix [in the Palais Bourbon, Paris] is true in tone. I recall that sea while observing this one.” Nothing reveals more clearly how accustomed Degas was to see nature in terms of an admired form of Romantic art, then to transform it into his own half-Romantic art. At other times on the same trip, however, he was content simply to draw and describe the constantly changing scene — the profile of a coastal range, the varied colors of the sea or the movements of a school of dolphins. Again his writing was subtly expressive, in this case flowing and lyrical in style, rich in metaphors and suited to his mood of reverie, perhaps even to his state of constant motion.
Something on this Romantic sensibility is still felt in the landscapes occasionally found in Degas’ later notebooks, despite their generally realistic conception. View of the Seine, a watercolor made in 1867-74 of a barge moored at a river bank in the Ile de France, may be more prosaic in its subject, its monotonous flatness and its muted gray and green tones than the View of Naples of a decade earlier showing the harbour and city, whose intrinsic charm is enhanced by a lively play of shapes and use of warm brown and golden yellow tones. Yet it reflects the same sensitivity to effects of delicate transparency and attenuated color in nature and an even greater interest in capturing its moods — here a somber stillness reminiscent of Whistler’s views of the Thames.
In the same way, an animated study Degas drew of trees and sky at sunset, in a notebook of 1879-28, contains observations on the fleeting beauty of “little yellowish rose tufts” of cloud and “pale copper rose grading into greenish violet white” in the sky, which are remarkably like those he had made of a sunset near Tivoli a quarter of a century earlier. Such unexpected continuities of thought are indeed one of the most interesting features of Degas’ artistic personality to emerge from a study of the many notes and sketches of landscape scattered throughout his 38 extant notebooks.