Collector Norton Simon purchased his first artwork by Edgar Degas, a bronze Dancer in the Role of Harlequin, in 1955. By the time of his death in 1993, Simon’s Degas collection was second in scope and size only to that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This new catalogue examines the 102 works by the artist in Simon’s collection and argues for an “uncanny affinity” between Simon and the oblique and recalcitrant Frenchman. The catalogue brings together the scholarly and technical expertise of Sara Campbell, curator of the Simon collection for almost 40 years, Degas scholar Richard Kendall, and National Gallery of Art conservators Shelley Sturman and Daphne Barbour. Analyzing the two-dimensional works, Kendall observes, “The idea that a single collector can change, or perhaps redefine, our understanding of a major artist’s work is somewhat unusual. In Norton Simon’s case, it proves difficult to resist.”
Degas is known for unpredictable inversions of pictorial strategy: Simon’s pictures, according to Kendall, encapsulate the drama of his radicalism. Dancers in the Rotunda at the Paris Opera, a canvas from the 1870s, for example, belongs to a little-studied group of ballet scenes the artist reworked in the 1890s. In this case Degas not only reconceived the visual surface, but also added new extensions of canvas to produce a hybrid Kendall accurately describes as “alternately systematic and willful, backward looking and recklessly innovative.” Much the same can be said of Simon’s Degas collection, which includes polished Impressionist masterpieces, pictures left unfinished, and astonishingly expressionistic late pastels.
The studies of Degas’s sculpture in the catalogue represent the leading edge in connoisseurship. After Degas’s death in 1917, the Hébrard foundry in Paris was commissioned to create 22 bronze casts of each of 73 wax and multimedia figures found in Degas’s studio after his death. All these editions were cast from a special set of master bronzes Simon acquired in 1977. After Simon’s purchase, Campbell began tracking the editioned sculptures—1,606 bronzes, in theory. Her exhaustive inventory, however, turned up only slightly more than 1,200 casts.
The catalogue presents persuasive evidence that most of the missing 400 or so bronzes were never cast. More than the authorized number of casts were made of popular sculptures, while fewer were made of others. To create the bronze editions, flexible gelatin molds were made from the Simon master bronzes. In collaboration with Sturman and Barbour, Campbell examined tiny lines on the master bronzes created when the gelatin molds were cut away. The most popular figures turn out to have the largest number of cut lines; unpopular examples have fewer.
This technical evidence strongly supports the conclusion that only about three-quarters of the sculptures originally planned were actually made. Sturman and Barbour’s comparative three-dimensional laser scans of Degas’s original sculpture, the master bronzes, and the serialized casts, furthermore, confirm casting chronologies proposed in previous studies.
These technical studies, together with Campbell’s inventory of casts and Kendall’s analysis of ways in which Simon’s collection shifts canonical views of Degas’s artistic practice, will be indispensable resources for years to come.
Patricia Failing, a professor of art history at the University of Washington, Seattle, is a contributing editor of ARTnews.