Art Thoughts, Week 18 -- Degas & Intent

Jockeys and Horses, Edgar Degas (French, 1834—1917), c. 1890—1895, oil on panel, BF 572.

Was Degas really finished? That’s one question which came to me while pondering Jockeys and Horses in the Barnes collection. This doubt is mostly precipitated by the plethora of more taut, almost polished compositions Degas is well known for; those glowing portraits which influenced younger artists, such as Toulouse-Lautrec and William Glackens. In fact, the execution of this painting is more akin with Degas’ pastel paintings: immediate; sensitive; obviously layered and a predominantly dry application.

The other reason for asking the question is the undisguised bravura with which Degas laid down this hazy cream sky; brushing against, and in some spots covering over the jockeys’ faces and the horses’ heads; and the similarly bold layer of mossy green emanating from the land, grabbing at the horses’ flanks and hooves. The application is so bald-faced; did Degas intend this? Or, did he just become too distracted, as he once said; beginning far too many things he hadn’t time to finish?

Degas was, simply put, by the time this painting came to be, a master; both highly individualistic and influential. So, I would like to think that he fully intended to push a little at his own envelope, which he self-proclaimed to be “realism”. This painting was done when abstraction was just a twinkle in Art’s eyes, but it is, in retrospective, more thoroughly abstract than realistic. (My faithful readers will know I consider all art to be intrinsically abstract by default, even realism, but that’s another conversation). An important point to make, regardless, is that Degas, in this sassy lathering-up of sky and kicking-up of ground, seems to have acted instinctively rather than intellectually to natural stimuli. That is, instead of a Northern Renaissance artist’s need to obtain a full cogitation on sky as a platitude – carefully parsing and then reconstructing it – Degas is brushing before he thinks; or more aptly, brushing with out needing to think – i.e. instinctually. His extensive training and intensive “field experience” had equipped him to act confidently in bold gestures of competence such as this one.
So, the question of Degas’ intent remains. But what also remains is the much more mysterious, beautiful and evanescent result of whatever was going on in Degas’ head: at that particular French racetrack, that particular misty autumn morning.

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