In January 1862 two young painters started talking about their craft as they copied Velázquez’ masterpiece, the Infanta Margarita, in the Louvre. Édouard Manet was just 30 years of age, the son of a wealthy family of diplomats and judges. He was impressed by the skill of the 27-year-old Edgar Degas, who – as the story goes – was etching his copy directly onto an engraving plate.
Degas too was from a bourgeois family, although less conventional than Manet’s: his mother Célestine was a creole from New Orleans and much of the family’s wealth came from the cotton industry in the southern United States. At the moment of their encounter, Degas’ family was receiving reports of the heavy impact on the cotton trade of the American Civil War, which had erupted in 1861.
The two men became friends, despite their contrasting personalities and artistic interests. Degas’ relationship with Manet and Impressionism was to be a stormy one, but the encounter was a turning-point in Degas’ career.
Degas had rebuffed his family’s pressures to practice law and in his early 20s had met the master portraitist and historical painter JAD Ingres, who was to remain Degas’ point of reference for artistic greatness.
Degas’ own training, and three years of study in Italy between 1856 and 1859, equipped him to follow in his master’s footsteps. At the time of his encounter with Manet, he had begun several history paintings drawing on biblical and classical themes in the style of the epic historical canvases of the early-19th century.
In contrast, when Manet met Degas, he had just started on The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l'herbe). The Paris Salon rejected it for exhibition in 1863 but Manet exhibited it at the Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Rejected) later in the year, established after the official Paris Salon had rejected almost 2,800 paintings.
The painting’s juxtaposition of fully dressed men and a naked woman was profoundly controversial, as was the confronting gaze of the prostitute in Manet’s Olympia, also completed in 1863.
Degas did not exhibit at the official Salon until 1865, when his painting Scene of War in the Middle Ages attracted little attention. He never again submitted a history painting to the Salon: his next exhibit was his Steeplechase — The Fallen Jockey (1866).
Manet’s brilliance and success may have convinced Degas to leave behind historical genre paintings and to embark instead on the studies in painting and sculpture of movement which were to create his historic stature: ballet dancers and their admirers, working-class women, and the world of horse-racing.
Among the superb portraits in this NGV exhibition are two of Manet, done in Degas’ home in 1864-68. Sometime in 1868, Degas then painted a portrait of Manet reclining on a couch and his wife Suzanne seated at a piano.
Controversy surrounds the portrait because the painting has been slashed from top to bottom, right through the likeness of Suzanne. The supposition is that Manet slashed the painting, perhaps simply because he did not like the way Suzanne was painted, or because he was feuding at the time with Degas or his wife.
When Degas later saw the damage to his painting he demanded its return. He claimed that he intended to re-paint the likeness of Suzanne but he never did so. For whatever reason, Degas kept the damaged painting on his wall: a photo of him in his apartment around 1895 shows it hanging behind him. It remains in its slashed state in the Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art in Japan.
Degas, like other artists resentful of the florid “academic art” approved of by the Salon, took the lead in establishing an independent society following the Salon des Réfusés. The group, soon known as the Impressionists, mounted eight shows between 1874 and 1886, known as the Impressionist or Independents Exhibitions. Degas played a leading role in organising them, and showed his work in all but one of them, but was constantly at loggerheads with others in the loose band.
Degas kept his distance from Impressionism, mocking what he dismissed as its pretensions at painting en plein air (painting outside) and its lack of respect for the exactitude of the earlier masters; he never used the Impressionist colour fleck.
Degas himself explained,
no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and of the study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament, I know nothing.
Manet was a much more inclusive personality than Degas, who seems to have been temperamentally suspicious of fashions and notoriety, and a notorious “grincheux” (curmudgeon). He was not attracted to the left-wing politics of the avant-garde Paris art world.
Degas was conservative in his social attitudes, and disliked the scandal created by the exhibitions, as well as the publicity and advertising that his colleagues sought.
The friendship between Manet and Degas was never again as close as it had been in the 1860s. In his forties, in the 1870s, Manet contracted syphilis, for which he received no treatment. In the years before his death, he developed side-effects of syphilis which caused him considerable pain.
In April 1883, his left foot was amputated because of gangrene, and he died eleven days later in Paris.
Degas’ own financial situation improved with the sales of his own work, and he was able to indulge his remarkable passion as a collector, in particular of old masters such as El Greco and his personal masters from earlier in the century: Ingres, Delacroix, and Daumier.
But he also purchased work by contemporaries such as Pissarro, Cézanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh. Nor did he neglect Édouard Manet, and had purchased the fragmented Execution of Maximilian (1868). After Degas’ death in 1917, the art world was staggered at the size of his private collection, dispersed at massive prices despite the surrounding war.
Degas preferred to be called a realist, although he was close to the milieu of Manet and the Impressionists. But he was above all a superb draftsman with a particular skill of capturing movement in the human form.
His enduring greatness lies in the fusion of his deep respect for the traditional methods of his masters with the change of his focus to contemporary society, particularly ballet dancers, women at work, female nudes, and the world of race-courses. We may owe that captivating fusion to his meeting and subsequent friendship with Manet.
Degas: A New Vision opens at the National Gallery of Victoria on June 24.
Professor Peter McPhee will present floor talks on the relationship between Degas and Manet as part of the after-hours event series Friday Nights at NGV, on 8 July, 12 August and 9 September.