Art and Perception: Degas

Art & Literature, Culture, Media — By on April 26, 2010 at 8:39 am

Though it is popular to view art as the self-expression of the artist, a great deal of it is in fact dedicated to problems of perception: the process of recording observed forms presents the opportunity to correct perceptual errors. Most drawing instructors will assure you that the first and most foundational lesson in learning how to draw is simply learning how to see– if you can master that, controlling your materials is a cinch.

Frequently, an artist will make a plethora of study sketches before finally producing the painting that becomes famous. The sketches serve a variety of purposes–testing out ideas, balancing a composition, playing with metaphors–but mostly they function as research. If an artist wants to discover how an arm moves, he draws it, or, on occasion, sculpts it. Michaelangelo, Rodin, and DaVinci made drawings to research for their sculptures; Degas sculpted to research for his paintings.

Little Dancer, 14 Years Old

Though over 100 unique Degas sculptures are exhibited in museums today, during his lifetime the artist made only one which he intended for public display: Little Dancer, 14 Years Old. The rest he made for research purposes, and left in his studio. After his death, these study sculptures, originally made from wax, were cast into a more durable bronze material for museum display.

The differences in execution between Little Dancer and these study models are remarkable. The surface of the Dancer is carefully smoothed, and presents itself as a polished imitation of actual skin, tights, and slippers. The surfaces of the study models vary greatly, but none are polished to match the Dancer. Since Degas used these sculptures as studies for paintings and not as display pieces, his attention was focused on the anatomy, movement, and rough proportion of the poses, not polishing their surfaces.

For instance, Degas formed these studies of horses out of a wax composite and used them primarily to solve complex lighting problems presented by his compositions. Painting a horse with intricate muscular structure on an outdoor racetrack is far more difficult than it looks. The main light source is determined by the position of the sun and whether there is cloud cover. Depending on its intensity, that light will reflect varying degrees of local color from all surfaces near the horse, lighting it at odd angles and creating unexpected hues and tones on the body.

When this occurs in daily life the brain processes the effects so quickly that we hardly notice. But when you see a painting that neglects these lighting effects, it will feel off somehow. You may not be able to put your finger on the exact cause, but the image will feel dark, artificial and a bit flat.

Left: 'Race Horses'. Right: 'Training for the Horse Race'

Making a three dimensional model allowed Degas to observe the patterns of reflected light, and thus enabled him to paint the challenging scenes with confidence.

You can tell by the way the horses are sculpted that Degas was interested in the elegant power of the beast. The musculature is carefully observed, but not exaggerated. The skeleton is only visible as a framework connecting and illuminating the muscles. The horses are in poses that showcase their agility and grace, and when Degas paints them they are calm, natural elements of a composition about power.

You may wonder why these study models are on display at a museum: after all, if the artist didn’t intend them to be individual works of art, do they really count?

In short, yes. For the modern viewer, Degas’ study sculptures are eloquent isolations of light and form, paring away some details so that we can observe others. While these models do not create a world or finished object apart from ours, they do focus our attention and perception on the beauty of the forms surrounding us. They say “look here: isn’t the curve of a horse’s underbelly lovely? Aren’t the hocks marvelous in their delicate size and tremendous power?” And we answer “yes, but I never saw that before….” which is precisely the point. Art can create worlds, but it can also be used to see our own world more clearly, which is exactly what Degas’ sculptures do. ‘


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