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Edgar Degas (1834-1917): a century later…

[02 May 2017]

Edgar DEGAS’s relatively modest 139th position in the global ranking of artists by auction turnover (with $13.3 million in 2016) reflects the increasing rarity of his masterpieces on the market. However, in this centenary year of the artist’s death, Degas fans have been offered a number of opportunities to acquire works by the Modern master.

Degas’s audacious vision – his “photo-like” framing and his uncompromising realism – revitalised Modern art and made him a major figure of Impressionism, although he personally preferred the etiquette “naturalist” or “realist”. Born Hilaire Germain Edgar de Gas in Paris on 19 July 1834, Degas began his art studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts under the direction of a disciple of Ingres, Louis Lamothe. He continued his training with trips to Italy and then as a copyist at the Louvre. There followed a decisive encounter with opera: in 1870 he painted L’Orchestre de l’Opéra (today in the Musée d’Orsay) which marked the start of a long relation with his emblematic subjects… opera houses, theatres, theatre-goers, backstage areas, and of course, ballet dancers. One of these, Danseuse au repos (c. 1879), set the artist’s current auction record at $37 million in November 2008 at Sotheby’s in New York. The same painting was purchased in London nine years earlier for $9.2 million less.

Edgar Degas experienced fame and exceptional prices during his lifetime, mainly thanks to his paintings of ballet dancers: on 10 December 1912, Paul Durand-Ruel bought his Danseuses à la barre (1876-1877) at a Rouart sale on behalf of the American collector H.O. Havemeyer for 435,000 francs, a considerable sum at the time, which significantly contributed to the artist’s success and notoriety (the work is now in the New York’s Metropolitan Museum). Even towards the end of his life, when no longer able to paint, Degas continued to work, sculpting dancers. When he died in 1917, some 150 sculptures were found in his studio, including a number of ballerinas.

An iconic sculpture: la petite danseuse

Degas’s dyed-wax sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, coiffed with real hair tied with a satin ribbon, dressed in a real tutu and wearing real ballet slippers for maximum realness, was the only sculpture Degas exhibited in his lifetime (at the 6th Impressionist exhibition in 1881). The work caused a scandal at the time with critics outraged by its strong realism, saying the work was a deviance… closer to taxidermy than art. But by anticipating a hyper-realism that is fully accepted and even celebrated today, Degas was way ahead of his time. The bronze edition, including the Musée d’Orsay’s sculpture, was cast (lost-wax technique) after his death by the Hebrard foundry (28 copies). An iconic work, it is one of the most sought-after sculptures from the Modern period. A copy acquired in June 2000 for the equivalent of $18.9 million at Sotheby’s in London was resold on 24 June 2015 at the same auction house for nearly $25 million. Amateur buyers… be warned: a number of subsequent casts of Degas’s Little Dancer exist on the market… some of very poor quality.

Degas on paper…

When it comes to major signatures like Degas, collectors and museums are always on the lookout for purchase opportunities since few of his original works surface each year (in 2016 about fifty worldwide, excluding prints). However, very occasionally the market is graced with an exceptional event like the recent Christie’s sale during the now famous Parisian Drawing Week held every March. The lengthy sale on 23 March offered no less than 55 early Degas drawings, dated from 1855 to 1865, and belonging to the artist’s family. These studio drawings are a powerful testimony of the learning processes and influences that the young Degas experienced in his twenties: studies of classical subjects, nudes, family portraits and other drawings in the styles of Mantegna, Rembrandt, Perugino, Michelangelo, Poussin and Géricault… and never seen before on the market. Degas’s admiration for Rembrandt was particularly apparent in an ink work entitled Femmes au Lavoir, an intimate subject that prefigured his famous bathing women later in his career… Surprisingly, carrying a low estimate of $16,000, the work remained unsold and collectors prioritised more affordable or emblematic works. A study of a horse in pencil (Etude de cheval a common Degas subject) that Christie’s expected to fetch $3,000 was bid all the way to over $48,000 despite its very modest dimensions (6 x 9.69 cm)… The excellent provenance of the works on offer and the attractive estimates generated a number of other surprises including nearly $430,000 for a “Gladiateur Borghèse” estimated around $30,000.

A number of drawings were offered at quite affordable prices such as a 20-centimetre Étude de personnages in pencil that sold for $6,000, twice its high estimate. Another buyer got an excellent deal by paying just $8,000 (well below its estimate) for a 30-centimetre Academic Study, Standing Nude.

The sale allowed Degas’s work to be viewed from a new angle… that of the inspirations and aspirations that the artist started with. Indeed, the study and appreciation of the work of great masters is an unlimited process that it is continually fuelled by cultural institutions or auction houses seeking new angles to present and new ways to appreciate their work.

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