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Edgar Germain Hilaire Degas’ “Waiting”

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Among the most interesting work of modern art on display in the J. Paul Getty Museum is Edgar Germain Hilaire Degas’ “Waiting,” a pastel painting done around 1882. In this work, Degas captures the picture of a young ballerina and an older woman sitting on a bench, apparently waiting for something to happen or someone to arrive. The painting is a study of the sharp contrast between youth and old age, which is illustrated in the play of colors, light, and shadows that the painter carefully preserved in his work.

The young ballerina is painted in soft colors of gold, blue, and cream which reflect the light while the older woman is garbed in black. In the same manner, the younger subject is painted to suggest motion, energy and restlessness; here she is massaging her feet, apparently waiting for a performance to begin. The woman, on the other hand, is immobile, devoid of light movement and comes across to be waiting for the action to end so she can rest.

Degas’ “Waiting” is displayed in a small dark room located on the left side of the museum entrance. Exhibited along with it are German painter Joseph Vivien’s “Portrait of a Man” and Swiss painter Jean-Étienne Liotard’s “Maria Frederike van Reede-Athlone at Seven.” The darkness of the room brings out the sharp contrast in colors and the use of light in the pastels. Likewise, its small size is clearly meant to convey a sense of intimacy wherein the viewer feels a sense of privilege at catching a glimpse of so personal a thing as an individual’s portrait.

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The arrangement of the paintings depicts the various influences of artists according to their respective periods. In particular, the works show the progression of portraiture and the use of pastel as a medium since Vivien’s “Portrait of a Man” in 1725 to Degas’ “Waiting” a century and a half later. It is clear that Degas’ work is a huge departure from the conventional concept of painting people’s portraits. Vivien’s portrait is carefully composed according to the artistic conventions of balance and color; its subject is self-consciously positioned at the center of the canvass, capturing the face, and his figure appears to come out of the shadows.

Vivien’s colors are austere and sombre, which reflects the prevailing style at that time. Liotard’s “Maria Frederike van Reede-Athlone,” on the other hand, reflects a subtle change in the painter’s pallet from Vivien’s dark, muted colors to bold, albeit cold tones. However, the same rule is applied regarding the subject’s position. Hence, Degas’ “Waiting” stands out in sharp contrast to the two paintings.

First, he clearly circumvents the prevailing concept of portraiture by showing two subjects who assume positions that are not usually accepted in portraiture: the young girl is shown massaging her feet, which makes her face unseen by the audience, while the woman’s face is half-covered by her hat. Degas also draws his subjects from a very different angle and perspective; he is obviously not as interested in showing their facial countenances as in showing their characters through body language. He also abandons the dark tones in favor of bold, bright, and warm colors to create dramatic contrasts in his work.

“Waiting” illustrates Degas’ affinity with the impressionist movement, although he apparently abhorred being called one because of major ideological rifts with prominent impressionist painters. He particularly criticized his self-confessed impressionist contemporaries for their practice of painting in “plein-air” as he believed that it was tantamount to copying which interfered with the artist’s imagination. (Smith 58) Nevertheless, Degas’ work clearly shares the same impressionist characteristics as shown in his style and choice of events and people of everyday life as subjects.

Like the works of most impressionist painters such as Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Jean Frederic Bazille, and Camille Pissarro, Degas’ “Waiting” reflected the belief that “art should relate to the real world and reflect modern life” as opposed to painting religious and mythological figures that was traditionally favored by connosieurs of high art. (Snider) Its choice of subject, a ballerina and her companion in the process of waiting, captures an aspect of modern French life. Its style undoubtedly mirrors the impressionists’ fascination with capturing light in the most realistic manner, and its colors also carry the impressionist preference for warm, vibrant tones that suggest movement and life.

Although Degas’ works and his obsession with the figures of women, particularly dancers, in his paintings have often invited varied interpretation from art critics and academicians, it is clear that his middle-class background and upbringing has tremendous influence in shaping his choice of subjects. (Theodore 145) Reff Theodore infers that Degas’ passion for painting movement arose from his early exposure to the ballet which was “a familiar part of the contemporary scene” in nineteenth century Paris. (145)

The impact of Degas’ background is also seen in his being “deeply concerned with truth for its own sake, in probing life beneath the crust of good manners” (Nicolson 172) in his depiction of Parisian modern life. In “Waiting,” Degas honestly portrays the differences between his subjects, in effect making a statement about the sad truth that the young ballerina, with all her vibrancy and beauty, will soon pass into the life of her companion, drained and weary of the world.

It is suggested that Degas’ and other impressionists’ ideas were largely influenced by the rapid technological and social developments of their time. Indeed, impressionism drew much of its ideas from innovations, techniques, and concepts in photography. (Snider) Clearly, Degas and his contemporaries were so impressed by the ability of photographs to capture the exact effect of light on its subjects that they sought to recreate this ability in their paintings. Other painters, like Monet, even tried to copy the photographic effects of varying shutter speeds in his work. (Snider)

Degas’ background as an artist produced and molded by extraordinary and tumultous changes in his time that was brought about by the rapid industrialization of France and all of Europe, his pastel work “Waiting” could be displayed in another gallery together with Claude Monet’s “Gare Saint-Lazare,” a painting which shows the Saint-Lazare train station. This painting would give a contemporary audience an idea of “Waiting’s” background as the train is a ubiquitous symbol of the industrial revolution which gripped not only the economic but also cultural life of Europe in Degas’ time. Hence, Monet’s work sets the mood for Degas’ curious study of youth and old age in the age of modernity, where everything passes quickly.

Other works that could be exhibited alongside Degas’ “Waiting” is Auguste Renoir’s painting “The Dance at the Moulin Delagalette” and Degas’ own work “The Millinery Shop” which shows the social activities of the French middle class and the activities of working-class women, respectively. The two paintings would also highlight the contrast that Degas sought to portray in his subjects, wherein Renoir’s middle-class subjects, painted as they socialize in a party, is compared with a lone woman while making hats that are ostensibly worn by those who can afford it. Likewise, Andy Warhol’s “Campbell Soup Cans” would also be a fitting touch to the gallery as it signifies the advent of mass production. Although Warhol’s work is at odds with the impressionist theme of Degas’ work, it nevertheless echoes the “ordinariness” and repetitive pattern of modern life that Degas captures in his painting.

Works Cited:

Nicolson, Benedict. “Degas’ Monotypes.” The Burlington Magazine 100.662 (May 1958):172-175

Reff, Theodore. “Edgar Degas and the Dance.” Arts Magazine 53.3(November 1978):145-149.

Smith, George E. “James, Degas, and the Modern View.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 21.1 (Autumn 1987): 56-72

Snider, Lindsay. “A Lasting Impression: French Painters Revolutionize the Art World.” The History Teacher, 25.1(November 2001). 5 May 2008.

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