Degas - Pagans and Degas's Father
Post #936 • January 11, 2007, 2:38 PM • 23 Comments
The timing of the creation of this work is intriguing, as pointed out in the catalogue: Degas was in his early sixties, and his father had been dead for over twenty years. The scene recalls the salon performances that used to take place in the De Gas home by Lorenzo Pagans, a Spanish tenor, during the late 1860s and early '70s. Degas, himself only a bit younger than the age at which his father died, is recalling his origins in culture and erudition, permeated with music, a shared love between father and son. I've seen it proposed that Degas's name change from his father's version, a more aristocratic De Gas, represented some kind of Oedipal break, but contemplating this work makes me think that the idea is twaddle. His father is a man whose decline he recounts with great sadness, albeit enlivened with the vigorous presence of Pagans, and a warm atmosphere of material and aesthetic comfort.
At this point Degas was concentrating increasingly on the visual effects of pastels. He seems, in certain passages in this work, to be trying to turn off the oily qualities of oil in favor of a dry stroke that would have come naturally out of a pastel crayon.
He is known to have put his paints out onto rags to soak the oil out of them a bit, and then reconstitute them with turpentine. That gives oil paint a chalky quality that one can distinguish from its native buttery state.
Degas claimed to know nothing of spontaneity, but the background behind his father's head is applied impetuously with his thumb.
The portrait itself is a marvel. The paint very much resembles pastel on close inspection. We're gazing at a strong man, but not a hard one, someone who bends with thoughtfulness and absorption as well as age.
Degas is especially admirable for being able to turn Impressionist handling on and off at will. The hachure, in less able hands, turned into an all-over mannerism. Not with Degas, who could reinvent it as needed depending on the angle and surface of the depicted object.
Just to show you who's boss, here's some unfinished canvas in a close part of the foreground. Not an easy thing to pull off.
And for all of the credit that Cézanne gets for inspiring Cubism, I have to wonder how much we ought to be thinking about Degas in similar regards.