Though we consider Impressionism as more of a traditional art style, in the 19th century it was the embodiment of the creative thinking and ingenuity. The Impressionists went against all conventional believes on the usage of colors and composition, focusing not on the existing at that time rules and strict depiction of the reality, but on the impression we can get from the various scenes. Basically this idea stands at the roots of all contemporary art we can observe in 20th century and nowadays. But the essence of Impressionism is not only about that. In order to get more profound understanding of Impressionism and its novations, we will get to know one of the greatest and most sophisticated Impressionist painters Edgar Degas. His artistic search had made a huge impact upon the whole movement, as well as upon art in general.
Unusual “usual” composition
This may sound strange, but this is exactly the right words for the most compositions of Degas’s works.
For example, on this early painting, the family is depicted in the casual, almost slack manner. The painting gives us a glimpse at the scene which reveals rather strained relations between family members, instead of the more formal depiction on the traditional family portraits that were typical for those times.
Later in his work he became very interested in the ballet and circus. We will tell why a little bit later, but the composition on those works was also quite a sensation.
Degas depicted beautiful ballerinas not from the usual “pretty” perspective, as some dancing nymphs on stage, but behind the scenes, during rehearsals; this angle shows their gracefulness which is accomplished by very hard, continual work. This “behind the scenes” concept is very important to the whole oeuvre of Edgar Degas; he wanted to go deeper, to get through the entourage and to study human nature in all the variety of aspects.
This painting of the famous circus acrobat Miss La La is probably the culmination of the Degas composition pursuits. The unique angle of the painting was a breakthrough and contributed a great change into the whole circus topic in art. Degas was fascinated by circus performances and did a variety of studies on acrobats’ tricks and movements. But this is our next point.
As it has been already mentioned, Edgar Degas was fond of the dancing and circus performances. But artist’s original interest was movement. He managed to gain access to the backstage and even attend the ballet rehearsals, during which he was making numerous sketches. This interest was relevant to the circus due to the same reason – study of movement. Moreover, Degas had brought the attention to its aesthetics and vivid flavor, which served as a source of inspiration for the next couple generations of artists.
He embraced this research not only on canvas, but also in sculptures; though the author himself showed his sculptures only once during his life. He combined real hair and fabric while making the statues, that were mostly portrayed dancers.
“In part Degas’ originality consisted in disregarding the smooth, full surfaces and contours of classical sculpture … [and] in garnishing his little statue with real hair and clothing made to scale like the
accoutrements for a doll. These relatively "real” additions heightened the illusion, but they also posed searching questions, such as what can be referred to as “real” when art is concerned.“
The motion itself is a very important part of Impressionism, as artists tried to capture it with their works, as well as to show the psychological part of the humans’ perception of the surrounding world and nature.
The choice of topics
The spectrum of Degas’s most notable themes includes ballet, circus, skipping, opera, and urban life.
Of course, they were not new to the art world. But Degas presented them in a new perspective, with some unexpected authentic features. We should also note his disposition towards the casual life scenes and situations. Can you imagine the connection between Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup and Degas’s ballerinas? It’s quite difficult, but the connection exists. Interest towards the objective approach and daily routine must have started at some point of history and it certainly did.
However, Edgar Degas didn’t like to be considered as an Impressionist painter (he liked the term realism), but the history shows their mutual connection and influence. Interest in motion, psychological part of the art appreciation, experiments with colors and composition, all of these things are presented in Degas oeuvre. Which makes him of of the greats of the whole movement.
“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” said Degas. And he did make us see, he showed us what is hidden and literally went “behind the scenes” in his artistic pursuits.