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Unveiling rarely seen works, Harvard widens the view of Degas

At the Sackler, scores of holdings willbe shown together for the first time

CAMBRIDGE -- Mention Impressionism in conjunction with the Boston area, and most people will think of the glorious collections at the Museum of Fine Arts.

It was across the river at Harvard, though, that Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas had his very first museum exhibition, in 1911. Harvard is hosting a Degas show again this summer, with around 60 works -- all, astonishingly, from the university's own holdings. They have never before been exhibited together, and some, because they're so frail, haven't been shown at all in nearly half a century.

Not only was the 1911 show at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum a first for Degas, it was also the only museum exhibition of his work during the lifetime of the artist, who died in 1917.

It was Paul Sachs, the museum's legendary associate director from the 1920s through the '40s, who created the core of the collection when he gave the Fogg some 22 Degas works. Sachs's inspired teaching also helped America understand them -- beyond the much-loved, much-reproduced, and much-misunderstood images of ballet dancers and racehorses.

Harvard has never stopped acquiring works by the artist. Just since 2002, the Degas collection has increased by seven, with gifts of two drawings, one print, one monotype, and a painting, plus purchases of a drawing and a photograph.

Besides celebrating the university's holdings, ''Degas at Harvard" at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum emphasizes that the artist ''experimented ceaselessly," says Edward Saywell, the Harvard curator who, with fellow curator Stephan Wolohojian, organized the show. Among other things, the exhibition includes the only two landscape photographs that can be firmly attributed to the artist. Saywell notes that Degas tried out long exposures, manipulation of the negative, and other photographic techniques in these and other works.

The newly acquired painting, ''Horses and Riders on a Road," was done in the 1860s, relatively early in the artist's career. ''It has a beautiful, unfinished feel to it," Saywell says. ''It looks like it's on unprimed panel. But it's actually rubbed out and worked over to give that effect."

Degas resisted the label ''Impressionist," Saywell notes. ''Unlike the others, he didn't focus on plein-air painting. He worked in the studio, with artificial light."

''Daylight gives me no problem," the artist once said. ''What I want is difficult -- the atmosphere of lamps or moonlight." Hence his many nocturnal and theatrical images. Among the best known is the Fogg's great pastel, ''Chanteuse de Café," in which bright artificial lighting falls on the singer's face, adding to the drama of a pose centered on her uplifted, black-gloved hand.

Possibly the best known of the Harvard Degas works is the bronze sculpture ''Little Dancer, Fourteen Years Old." Degas never saw it. He sculpted in wax, and only after his death did his heirs have his works cast in bronze. A seeming symbol of innocence, the work actually has a sordid history. The teenage ballet student entered a life of prostitution not long after she modeled for the artist.

Nowadays, the iconic ''Little Dancer" is a subject of hot debate among scholars -- over the length of the fabric tutu she wears.

''I'm not even going to get started on that," Saywell announces firmly.

The Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University, Aug . 1-Nov. 27. 617-495-9400; www.artmuseums.harvard.edu.

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