It’s not surprising that Janet Menzies is in love with the equestrian works of the Impressionist Edgar Degas. Though painted more than a hundred years ago, they still hold appeal for any racegoer
Edgar Degas may be better known for his ballet dancers and nudes bathing, but his racing works were far more important to the development of Impressionism. Capturing the impression of real life, Janet Menzies appreciates how despite being painted more than a hundred years ago, At the Races could still be a scene from Cheltenham today.
For more sporting artists, Leslie McGregor Scott-Clark and Rosemary Park share farming and gundog-handling duties as well as a studio, allowing them to live the sporting life they paint. Or, Paul Augustinus resists animals as the focal point of his work so he can convey the real Africa.
If you have ever been at the races, then Edgar Degas’ painting, At the Races, will mean something to you. If you are an addictive racegoer, it will mean everything.
Now hanging at the Musée d’Orsay, At the Races is part of a group that includes At the Races: Before the Start; At the races in the Countryside; and At the Races: Before the Race. Painted more than a hundred years ago, the scenes, the atmosphere, the tension, the unpredictable movements of the horses and the body language of the jockeys are all instantly recognisable to a racegoer today. There is something in these paintings that goes beyond simple familiarity and straight to the heart.
Edgar Degas said, “I have spoken to the most intelligent people about art, and they have not understood; but among people who understand, words are not necessary.”
Edgar Degas was one of the founding artists of the Impressionist movement, and it was with his first racing work, Scene from the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey, painted in 1866 for exhibition at the Paris Salon, that he made the brave and intuitive leap from traditional 19th-century genre and history painting to “impressionist” work. The Impressionist movement earned its name through capturing impressions of real life. The vitality, the movement, the sensation of being just before or after the beat of the moment, communicate directly to the viewer’s emotions.
Although Edgar Degas is more famous for his ballet dancers and nudes bathing, the racing paintings are probably more important in their contribution to the development of Impressionism. To look at Before the Start or Before the Race is to be taken straight to Cheltenham or Epsom. The land could be Cleeve Hill or Epsom Downs. There is a fine haze of rain or a mist rolls across the scene. The starting post juts into view, accentuating the movement of the horse as it disappears briefly behind the post. All these, the viewer responds to intuitively but they are the result of extraordinary innovations of technique. Degas’ composition was radical, with an “unimportant” starting post taking the foreground and fragmenting the image. His horses and jockeys are merely glimpsed as the horses’ movements take them out of the frame, giving just a fleeting impression of that moment.
So Edgar Degas is rightly regarded as among the first Impressionists, and his work was included in all but one of the eight shows between 1874 and 1886 that established the movement. But unlike others, he didn’t like painting en plein air and trusted instead to the vivid impression left in his memory by a particular racing scene. Later he would construct elaborate sets to paint the nudes bathing series. Despite the fact that his racing paintings are inescapably impressionistic, Degas would give you an argument about his being an “Impressionist”. Actually, Degas would have given you an argument about anything. Renoir said, “What a creature he was, that Degas! All his friends had to leave him; I was one of the last to go, but even I couldn’t stay till the end.”
Edgar Degas eventually moved on to his obsession with depicting young, sometimes very young, ballet dancers. Controversial at that time, these are now his most popular works making prices upwards of £10 million at auction. Sotheby’s expert Georgina Gold comments, “It’s an interesting reflection of the change in public tastes that at the time his racing paintings were highly saleable, whereas now the pastels of ballet dancers are his most popular work and certainly command a premium at auction over the racing paintings.” The equestrian paintings are now almost all in public galleries but a small sketch, Study of a Horse, was sold by Sotheby’s in February for £43,750.
For those with shorter pockets, 2016 is a great time to view Edgar Degas in the run-up to the centenary of his death in 1917. Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria is holding Degas: A New Vision from 24 June to 18 September while New York’s MoMA runs Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty until 24 July. Or you could go racing and see for yourself. Degas would approve. “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see,” he said.