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Impressionist or No?
Edgar Degas is often counted among the group of French artists collectively called Impressionists, but in doing so, in actuality, we find ourselves both stretching the definition of Impressionism and the nature of the artist's work as well. If Degas was an Impressionist, one would have to look some in studying his work to see much influence from the group. His association with the Impressionists was more social than artistic. His association with Impressionism itself, in the final analysis, was mostly one of disillusionment. The best that could be said regarding Degas and impressionism was that he "experimented" to some degree with some of its pronouncements, with some of its colour theories, and with some of its painting techniques, and not always all of these things in the same paintings either.

In age and temperament, he was much more closely aligned with Edouard Manet whom he met in 1862. Manet, too, is sometimes referred to in the same breath with Impressionism, but despite his considerable influence upon Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, and others, he was mostly just an Impressionist when he wanted to be, which wasn't all that often. Degas shared another trait with Manet, in that they were both quite interested in depicting the recreational habits of their Parisian compatriots. Degas' artistic interests included the ballet, for which he is most famous, but also the music hall, the opera, the circus, and especially the racetrack. However his interest in the "ponies" was purely artistic. Though given the fact he was born in 1834, he undoubtedly rode horses from time to time, but he never owned one, nor bet on them either. In fact he was vehemently opposed to any form of gambling.

On April of 1998, an exhibit of some 120 of Degas' works involving horses opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. This show contained work culled from some 37 different museums and private collections. In studying these track paintings, it is evident that Degas loved the sleek, graceful bodies of the horses though he claimed to have no feeling for how they moved. In fact, he often exhibited great difficulty in "getting them right" as he put it. His interest, like his fascination with the ballet, was not in the performance itself, but in those doing the performing in the moments just before their performances. As much as the horses, it was the jockeys, those riding the horses, that captured his imagination.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
15 April 1998

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