Within his lifetime, as today, Degas was most celebrated as the painter of one subject: the ballet. Above all the subjects that he treated, whether the early history paintings, the scenes of life in the modern city-race courses and cafes, shopgirls, and laundresses-or the portraits of family and friends that he continued to paint throughout his life, it is the dancer that is now associated with the name of Degas in the popular imagination.
The sustained series of dancers and bathers produced in the later years have the quality of a private language, obsessional and irresoluble. Quite different from earlier treatments of the same themes, they lack narrative and spatial definition, any sense of audience and immediate charm. The lonely figures are rendered in colors that are frequently shrill and coarse, while the surface is attacked, scraped and reworked, often with the artist’s fingers and thumbs.
Many of Degas’ key works are in charcoal on tracing paper or in pastel that is richly textured and layered. In his late works, Degas’ freedom of handling can be compared to that of Titian, and with Poussin, whom he used familiarly and affectionately to refer to as ‘le patron’. Artists of his own time looked to Degas for new and fruitful directions, which they themselves could exploit.
Central to Degas’s lifelong project, and a vital point of contact with the rising generation, was the depiction of the human figure. Though he valued the landscape more than is generally realized, it was the body in a thousand states of repose and action that commanded his attention throughout the fifty years of his creative life; ‘we were made in order to look at each other’, the artist observed to Sickert in old age.
In Degas’ later images of the figure, we find the breadth described by Renoir at its most expressive and forceful. By the early 1890s, almost all the documentary functions of his earlier human subjects- the street entertainers, prostitutes, bourgeois strollers and silk-vested jockeys- had been left behind, replaced by elemental nudes and largely decontextualised dancers. Far from abstracting their forms and their dynamism, however as some of his successors were to do, Degas returned to their bodily particularity, their weariness and their shared human predicament, ‘defining a momentary pose of the body with the greatest precision’, even as he gave it ‘the greatest possible generalization’.