Drawn in Colour

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A rare opportunity to see stunning paintings, pastels, and drawings by leading French Impressionist Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

Coinciding with the centenary of Degas’ death, the National Gallery has organised an exhibition of the artist’s pastel works in collaboration with the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. Rarely ever put on public display, twenty fragile artworks are arranged in a darkened room to protect them from light damage, and will remain for public consumption until 7th May 2018. As well as celebrating his life’s works, Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell provides an insight into how Degas worked and the impact his personal circumstances had on his outcomes.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917; born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas) was the firstborn of a family of five children. Growing up in Paris, Degas was encouraged by his father, a wealthy art-loving banker, to train for law work, however, Degas quickly made his own decision to change career direction. At the age of 20, Degas began studying with Louis Lamothe (1822-69), an academic artist who taught him all he knew about draughtsmanship.

Degas also briefly enrolled in classes at the École des Beaux-Arts, however, he preferred to educate himself by carefully studying paintings in the Louvre. Incidentally, it was whilst making a copy of a painting in the gallery that he was spotted by the modern painter Édouard Manet (1832-83). Manet introduced Degas to the newly formed circle of Impressionist artists. The group focused on expressing their personality through their artwork in response to the world around them. Joining the Impressionists set Degas on a path that influenced him to focus on contemporary scenes rather than the historical type witnessed in the Louvre. Degas was to become known for ballet and theatre scenes, cafés and women bathing.

Like most Impressionist art, Degas’ scenes look fresh and informal as though they were spontaneous and unplanned. However, Degas confessed that this was only how they appeared and were a far shout from reality. Degas was a very meticulous artist and carefully planned all his compositions.

Initially, Degas preferred to use oil paints, however, by the age of fifty, his eyesight was becoming significantly impaired. As a result, he began to use pastel as an alternative (as seen in this exhibition) because it meant he could get physically closer to the work surface in order to see it better. Degas experimented wildly with pastel, inventing ways to manipulate the colours and produce effects that had never been seen before. The worse his eyesight became, the more garish the colours and tones of the artwork.

 

The exhibition is divided into sections which include Modern Life, Dancers, Private World, and Horses. This shows the range of themes Degas explored as an Impressionist artist. One thing that is striking about Degas’ outcomes is that the people depicted appear unaware that they are being watched. Pastel drawings of ballerinas appear to have been made whilst viewing a dance rehearsal, the jockeys as though viewing a race, and the bathing women do not seem to realise anyone else is in the room.

“Until now, the nude has always been represented in poses that presuppose an audience, but these women of mine are honest, simple folk … It is as if you looked through a key hole.”

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Nude Grand Arabesque, First Time. 1860s

Amongst the twenty pastel drawings in the exhibition is a nude sculpture of a dancer. Originally molded out of wax, Degas produced these himself in order to aid his artwork. Degas often relied on these tactile forms to help him draw the dancers who he could no longer see clearly.

It is obvious which artworks in the exhibition occurred after sight loss due to the change in tone and execution. Older works feel much smoother and the scene is easier to make out, whereas those produced in the latter stages of Degas’ career have a more rushed appearance; the lines are more chaotic and the figures blurred. It is as though viewing a scene with poor eyesight – the way Degas probably saw it.

 

The two drawings above are a clear example Degas’ eyesight had upon his outcomes. In The Rehearsal (1874), the figures are clear with detailed shadows and clothing. The architecture of the room is precise, particularly the spiral staircase which reflects the contortion abilities of the dancers. In contrast, Dancers on a Bench (1898) is less defined, the colours unnatural and the pastel strokes obvious.

A strange fellow, this Degas — sickly, a bundle of nerves, with such weak eyes that he is afraid of going blind, yet for these very reasons extremely sensitive to the character of things. He is more skillful in capturing the essence of modern life than anyone I know.

-Edmond de Goncourt (1874)

Today’s exhibition would not have been able to take place, or at least be significantly harder to curate, without the extensive collection of one Scottish man. Sir William Burrell (1861-1958) was an art collector who, from 1916 onwards, devoted his life to collecting. Whilst his interests were diverse, his collection soon became strong in medieval art and 19th-century French painting. His passion for the latter resulted in a number of Degas’ pastel drawings, which are currently on loan to the National Gallery.

Burrell eventually had 8000 objects in his collection, which he presented to the city of Glasgow in 1944 along with a considerable sum of money to pay for a museum to be constructed in which to display the artworks. Now currently under refurbishment, the Burrell Collection is closed until 2020, thus providing the perfect opportunity to temporarily rehouse Degas’ drawings at the National Gallery rather than putting them into storage.

Despite it being easy to obtain permission to borrow the artwork, it was not easy to transport and display the fragile drawings. Pastels can quickly be damaged by handling and light, but Degas’ pastels are even more delicate because of the type of paper he preferred. The majority of his work was produced on tracing paper which is very flimsy and easily torn. Their age only increases the risk of breakage making this exhibition one of the more challenging the Gallery has assembled.

The artworks are displayed on dark grey walls in rooms with subdued lighting. Although this is to limit the possibility of damage, it changes the way visitors perceive the images. The darkness makes Degas’ work feel precious, rare and special – almost sacred. Unlike the rest of the National Gallery, which can get very noisy, no one raises their voice above a whisper as they tour the Drawn in Colour exhibition.

One of the great things about seeing an exhibition devoted to one artist, rather than viewing randomly positioned paintings, is the insight into the artist’s life, thoughts, and techniques. Seeing one painting alone, whether in person or online, almost removes any meaning or history, whereas in a collection the processes and developments can be seen. Along with explanatory captions and walls of information, the National Gallery’s tailor-made displays and exhibition are as educational as reading a textbook.

As already mentioned, Drawn in Colour is open until 7th May 2018, so there is plenty of time to arrange a visit to the Gallery. There are also a few other works by Degas in other rooms that may also be worth viewing in order to compare his pastel works with those completed in oil on canvas.

A list of works by Degas that the National Gallery has in their possession can be found on their website.

Sir John Soane: Master Hoarder

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The ‘supreme example of the house-museum in the world’

Born in Berkshire, 1753, (Sir) John Soane, following in the footsteps of his bricklayer father, took his passion for buildings to the next level when he became a pupil of the architect George Dance at the mere age of fifteen. After studying the subject at the Royal Academy in London, Soane spent some time in Italy before returning to England where he later secured the position of Architect and Surveyor to the bank of England in 1788. Eventually he became a Professor of Architecture at the same academy he attended as a student.

Soane’s passion was not only significant for his career, but influenced and shaped his entire life. His marriage to Eliza Smith prompted him to purchase and remodel No. 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields – supposably taking advantage of his wife being a heiress – as a home for his family of two sons. This was in 1792, however sixteen years later he began rebuilding the house next-door – No. 13 – as an extension to his original home. Eventually, No. 14 was added to his personalised home meaning that he was able to rent out parts as a way of earning extra income, as well as opening a museum and creating a particularly inventive picture gallery.

By the time Soane had finished renovating No. 12, 13 and 14, the structure resembled a maze more than a house. From the outside, the buildings innocently stand there refusing to provide the merest suggestion of the labyrinth found inside, however stepping through the front door takes you to a new dimension. With unexpected doors, corridors and mysterious rooms, it is easy to get yourself lost and turned around several times throughout your visit. If you were to release a cat into the building (don’t do it), there is a high chance you will never see it again!

Although Soane’s architecture is an impressive feat, it is not the main attraction. On his death in 1837, Soane’s house was left to the nation, which he had bequeathed as a museum for the public on the condition that it remain “as nearly as possible in the state in which he would leave it.” So, what is it about the house that makes it museum-worthy? The contents, of course.

Sir John Soane may have been one of England’s greatest architects, however was also a great collector of art, sculpture and painting. He used his home primarily as a laboratory for his architectural ideas, but also used his intriguing collections for teaching purposes. Students were left to wander through rooms to study and draw the accumulation of objects on shelves, walls, floors, and wherever else he managed to squeeze something in.

Some of the rooms were obviously decorated with the intention of being lived in, for instance the dining room, drawing room, study and dressing room. Despite this, their contents are still noteworthy objects. The furniture Soane purchased were not simple, function-based items, but expensive, meaningful amenities. Many were made specially for Soane, however there are chairs imported from China amongst the Classical vases, astronomical clock, oil lamps and frescos.

Those items, however, are a few of the more “normal” pieces in Soane’s collection. Head downstairs to the former wine cellars and you find yourself transported to ancient Rome in a basement titled the Crypt, reminiscent of the burial tombs or catacombs of bygone eras. The rather eerie, morbid atmosphere is summoned up by the cinerary urns, replicas of classical statues, gothic ornaments, plaster casts of grotesque heads, and, most importantly, the sarcophagus of an Egyptian king.

King Seti (1303-1290 BC) was interred in a sarcophagus carved from a single piece of calcite limestone and scored with hieroglyphics, telling the Egyptian story of the soul’s journey to the afterlife. What possessed Soane to make such a purchase is unknown, but in 1824 it was placed in his Sepulchral Chamber and has remained there ever since.

The basements, whilst containing the most fascinating items, is not necessarily the best room of the house. Some visitors may prefer the staircase and recess dedicated to William Shakespeare, complete with stain glass windows and paintings based on his plays, as well as a shrine featuring a cast of the original bust from the parish church of Stratford-Upon-Avon. Yet, without a doubt, the most impressive room is The Picture Room located upstairs.

Despite being a relatively small area, in comparison to most galleries, Soane managed to fit 118 paintings into his Picture Room. How? At a glance, it looks like an ordinary room (that happens to have a few famous paintings in it), however on closer inspection it is revealed that the walls are, in fact, hinged screens, that when opened, reveal even more artworks. The paintings cover the walls – real and fake – from floor to ceiling, using all space available. And, these works are as grand as the room itself.

Amongst Soane’s collection of paintings are a number of notable names: Canaletto, Turner, Fuseli; as well as architectural drawings designed by Soane himself. But, the most important pictures – the reason some people may visit the museum – are the eight paintings by William Hogarth that make up The Rake’s Progress. These are the originals, painted during the 1700s, and kept protected behind one of the wall screens.

Due to Soane’s instructions, the house has remained as close to the way it was left at the time of his death. Apart from restoration works to make the environment more suitable for visitors, the general contents of the building has been carefully preserved. Unfortunately, this means that the Museum’s owners have been unable to attach labels or information panels, as this would disturb the atmosphere and charm that Soane intended the public to experience. A short guide book is available for purchase at the entrance to help you find your way around the labyrinth of rooms, and provide a few paragraphs about the main attractions.

It is a shame that the museum only reveals a limited amount of information about Sir John Soane, his architecture and bizarre collection of oddities. One can assume that he was a rather unconventional man prone to whimsical ventures, yet why he chose to collect and display such items is anyone’s guess. But, we do not need to know the man to enjoy a tour around the surreal establishment. You will never see another house like it!