Art and Perception: Degas

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 After his death, these study sculptures, originally made from wax, were cast into a more durable bronze material for museum display.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. ‘

Real Heroism: Rodin’s Burghers of Calais

I pass by Rodin’s sculpture of the Burghers of Calais every morning on my way to work.  It’s a difficult sculpture for a modern viewer to access.  Who were the Burghers of Calais, anyway?  And why do these men look haggard and miserable?

The Burghers of Calais

The story is as old as the Hundred Years’ War.  The city of Calais had been under siege for 11 months, and conditions were dire.  King Edward III offered terms: he would spare the city if six of the most important men (burghers) surrendered themselves, dressed in plainclothes and wearing nooses around their necks.  He intended to kill them, and they knew it. Six men volunteered.  Stripping themselves of all the finery that set them apart as rich or important, they donned nooses and left the city, walking barefoot toward the enemy encampment and certain death.

Rodin chose to sculpt this moment–when each man’s love of his city grapples with his own fear of death.   They wear only loose tunics, garments which hang on them like beggars’ rags. Their skin is stretched taught, revealing skeletal cheekbones and sunken eyes.  These men are heroes, not gods, and Rodin emphasizes the pain of their struggle as the defining moment of bravery.  Writing to Paul Gsell, he explained,

In the indecision of that last inner combat which ensues between their cause and their fear of dying, each of them is isolated in front of his conscience. They are still questioning themselves to know if they have the strength to accomplish the supreme sacrifice — their soul pushes them onward, but their feet refuse to walk… If I have succeeded in showing how much the body, weakened by the most cruel sufferings, still holds on to life, how much power it still has over the spirit that is consumed with bravery, I congratulate myself on not having remained beneath the noble theme I have dealt with.

Each figure has a different struggle, but all are noble and all are pitiable. The oldest in the group (Jean d’Aire) bears the key to the city, an emblem of the cause of their noble sacrifice.  His entire body is rigid with resolve: he faces death, but must brace himself.  The key is enormous, a considerable weight and burden which must be born.

Burghers 1-3

The posture of the central figure (Eustache de Saint-Pierre) is similar.  His arms are slightly raised, as if they are guiding his steps forward.  His eyes are downcast but he still holds his head up.  His stance acknowledges defeat, but does so honorably and without flinching.

To his right (our left) is the most famous pose of the group.  The young man (Pierre de Wiessant) turns aside, his head downcast, his right arm gesturing questioningly before his face.  Reminiscent of Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be”, this figure finds surrender more difficult.  Just behind him, a fourth burgher (Jean de Fiennes) walks slowly, his arms slightly extended in a feeble plea for an easier fate.

Burghers 4-6

Hidden from our view by Eustache, a fifth man (Jacques de Wiessant) hesitates slightly as he walks, brow furrowed as he contemplates the end that is sure to come.  The sixth and final figure (Andrieu d’Andres) is the most heart-rending.  He leans forward, toward death, but buries his head in his hands, grieving the family whom he leaves behind.

The nooses round the men’s necks are ambiguous: at times they are draped like medals and decorative cords, at others they appear snakelike and threatening. Sometimes the rope just hangs limp, as helpless as its bearer. These cords are at once medallions and death sentences, badges of honor and yokes of shame.

The figures are cast in bronze, slightly over life-size.  Rodin wanted to install them without pedestals (much like our Korean War memorial in DC) but was not permitted.  He wrote:

I wanted them to be placed on the paving stones of the square in front of the town hall in Calais so that it looked as if they were leaving in order to go to the enemy camp. In this way they would have been mixed with the daily life of the town: passersby would have elbowed them, and they would have felt through this contact the emotion of the living past in their midst.

Though these heroes were willing to die for their city, they were not required to.  As it turned out, the English queen talked the king out of executing them.  Jean Froissart recorded the incident, and its unexpected ending:

The queen of England, who at that time was very big with child, fell on her knees, and with tears said, “…I most humbly ask as a gift… that you will be merciful to these six men.”
The king looked at her for some time in silence, and then said; “… you have entreated in such a manner that I cannot refuse you; I therefore give them to you, to do as you please with them.” The queen conducted the six citizens to her apartments, and had the halters taken from round their necks, after which she new clothed them, and served them with a plentiful dinner: she then presented each with six nobles, and had them escorted out of the camp in safety.