Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist, Works on Paper by the Artist and His Circle


This is the last week of the wonderful exhibit Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist, Works on Paper by the Artist and His Circle at the Petaluma Arts Center! I’d never been to the Arts Center before, it’s a great space in one of the old train depot buildings (don’t get me started on the demise of trains. Although at least the building has a good new life.) Anyway, the exhibit is well displayed, in a small room, where they suggest you start, to the left of the entrance, and the larger main room of the Center. I loved the scale – there was plenty to look at, but it wasn’t totally overwhelming. I felt like I could really look at everything without having to rush through or getting saturated. But, if you’re expecting a BIG MUSEUM EXPERIENCE like you’d get in The City you might be a bit disappointed.

The works are from the collection of Robert Flynn Johnson, Curator Emeritus of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Collecting can be an art in itself, it’s fascinating to see the end result of a years long process. From the exhibit text it sounds like Mr. Johnson was originally interested in Degas, and what now seems a cohesive vision including peers, influencers and influences evolved organically over time.

It’s always fascinating to see the drawings of someone famous for their paintings. They are often more accessible, or show the artist’s process or progress. They seem closer to the hand or spirit somehow. More real, bare – maybe intimate is the word I’m looking for. You can’t lie in drawing.

Plough Horse. Image provided by Petaluma Art Center

Plough Horse. Image provided by Petaluma Arts Center

Apparently Degas was considered the best, or one of the best draughtsmen of his time. The Plough Horse and Study for Dante and Virgil attest to his skill. Among the other artists I was taken by Adolph von Menzel’s drawing of his sister asleep on the train and Charles Keene’s Portrait of a Woman. I don’t recall hearing of either of these artists before, so there’s some further exploration to do.

I also really enjoyed the prints. According to the exhibit text, Degas was not in to printmaking for the economic possibilities of making multiples, but as a “private activity of artistic expression.” It sounds like he never editioned, and cancelled plates after a few prints.

As someone who often wonders if/when something is “done” I particularly enjoyed the print of Degas’ sister Marguerite, an etching that he had gotten through five successful states (only one print of this, not in the show), but then went over the edge with the sixth. There were some salvage attempts but he eventually abandoned the effort. The print in the show is one of the “gone wrong” states. It’s encouraging to see the process, his willingness to push the medium, and that things don’t always work out, even for Degas. (Although, of course, while alive he wasn’t quite the icon he’s become in the present day.)

Mary Cassatt at the Louvre - the Paintings Gallery. Image provided by Petaluma Arts Center

Mary Cassatt at the Louvre – the Paintings Gallery. Image provided by Petaluma Arts Center

Also noteworthy of the prints were his self-portrait of 1857 and Mary Cassatt at the Louvre – the Paintings Gallery. The text said he’d done many self-portraits in his early years, but after 1865 (age 31) only did one.

Degas got a camera in 1895, and, as it sounded like he did with all things he developed an interest in, vigorously applied himself to the process. A handful of his photographs are also included in the exhibit. Another thing I hadn’t known.

The exhibit text was also very informative, giving lots of great biographical tidbits, and by the nature of the collection giving the opportunity to discuss his relationships with the other artists of the day. I hadn’t known he’d lived in New Orleans in 1872-73. Apparently before he went he practiced English, for example saying “turkey buzzard” for a week. Degas was also quite a collector himself, having, among other things, 20 paintings and 90 drawings by Ingres!

This was a lovely treat to experience in Sonoma County.

Exhibit runs through July 26, 2015.
Gallery Hours
Thursday through Monday, 11 am – 5 pm
Closed Tuesday, Wednesday and holidays.
Extended hours during the Degas exhibition until 8 pm Saturday.

Another viewer’s post about the exhibit that I enjoyed reading here.

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2 Responses to Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist, Works on Paper by the Artist and His Circle

  1. Pingback: Petaluma Pie Company | 2m2t

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