Lasting impressions

A revelatory show explores the career-long influence of Degas on Picasso

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / June 18, 2010

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“Picasso Looks at Degas,’’ an exhibition tracing the influence of the Impressionist Edgar Degas on the modernist Pablo Picasso, is the show of the summer, and in all likelihood one of the most revelatory exhibitions on American soil this year.

Good exhibitions reveal to us things we didn’t already know. This show’s thesis — that Picasso was looking closely at Degas at regular intervals throughout his long career — has never seriously been proposed before.

The difficulty, of course, is that Picasso absorbed influences in the same way that Bill Clinton absorbed doughnuts: There was no stopping him. He inhaled them. Who’s counting?

His pictorial exchanges with contemporaries like Matisse and Braque and with predecessors from Rembrandt and Ingres to Cézanne and van Gogh have all been subjected to close scrutiny in the past.

But Degas? Really? Wasn’t the whole point of Picasso that he thrust aside the fugitive effects of 19th-century Impressionists like Degas, and — pushing the innovations of Cézanne, Gauguin, and van Gogh to extremes — opened up a Pandora’s box of distortion, abstraction, and psychological expressionism?

What could the cool, clinical, and naturalistic eye of the old Degas have to offer this young Mephistopheles on the make? You’ll be surprised.

No two scholars, it should be said, are better placed to argue the case than this show’s curators, Elizabeth Cowling and Richard Kendall, both of them British. Cowling is one of the world’s leading Picasso experts, and Kendall, whose idea the show originally was, is the English-speaking world’s preeminent Degas scholar. His 1996 exhibition “Degas: Beyond Impressionism’’ prefigured this show by reminding the world that Degas (1834-1917) was not just a 19th-century artist but a 20th-century one, too — and a radical one at that.

There’s no evidence that Picasso (1881-1973) ever met Degas. But by the end of his life the Spaniard had in his possession a vintage photograph of a dreamlike Degas monotype showing a sleeping nude, a set of Degas monotypes depicting brothel scenes (these inspired a famously bawdy series of Picasso prints in which Degas himself is shown impassively ogling pneumatic nudes in demonstrations of sexual athleticism), and a treasured photograph of the old man himself, who bore, Picasso thought, a close resemblance to his own father.

For a time, when Picasso was young, the two artists lived and worked just a five-minute walk from each other in Montmartre. They shared the same dealer (Ambrose Vollard). One of Picasso’s most important patrons, Leo Stein (the brother of Gertrude), was a vociferous champion of Degas. And we know that Picasso’s first serious girlfriend, Fernande Olivier, visited Degas’s studio; she would certainly have reported back to her lover on what she had seen.

Picasso had come to Paris from Barcelona, where he moved in a milieu that was under the spell of French avant-garde art of the late 19th century. When he moved to Paris permanently in 1904, he was already painting urban scenes in the manner of Degas and his protégé, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Inspired by their example, he and his friends saw Paris as a rolling spectacle of popular and erotic entertainments, offering up endless subjects for pictures.

There was, however, a belated quality to these early endeavors. Degas himself had long since stopped depicting the cafe concerts and horse-racing scenes that had helped make his reputation. He had turned inward, focusing his energies on a series of restlessly experimental pictures of dancers and bathers. And yet the legend of Degas the urban realist was firmly established: When it came to depicting the human animal in the context of erotic, seamy, bohemian Paris, he remained the exemplary figure.

One of the first great juxtapositions in the show puts Degas’s notorious “In a Café (L’Absinthe)’’ (1875-76) beside Picasso’s “Portrait of Sebastian Juner Vidal,’’ of 1903. The Degas shows two of the artist’s friends posing as dejected drunks in a grayish cafe. Picasso’s portrait takes up the same theme (although Vidal’s female companion, a prostitute, seems to have been a last-minute addition).

The figures in the Degas look askance: They’re observed unawares. By way of contrast, Picasso’s sitters, painted in his famously blue palette, stare out at us with dark, soulful eyes, emphasizing their pitiful plight, and our sense that they — and the artist — are taking it personally.

Another juxtaposition shows two paintings of women ironing. Ironing without the benefit of electricity or steam was hard labor. Degas’s backlighted, slightly penumbral figure conveys some of the strain. The striking contrast between the smooth, starched, severely folded shirt she has just finished and the rumpled mass she has just taken up accentuate the point.

But for Picasso this kind of realism was not enough. He wanted more. His painting of a woman ironing (which curiously recycles a pose he had used in his earlier “The Blue Room (The Tub),’’ also shown here) is emaciated and exhausted. Her bony shoulder protrudes upward like a mountain peak. Her head is bowed in sorrow: an icon of the downtrodden.

As much as they demonstrate affinities, these pairings also point up the differences between Degas and the youthful Picasso. Degas was the child of an earlier epoch. Classically educated and from a well-off family, he was famously aloof (and, in his later years, depressingly anti-Semitic). He looked on poverty, exhaustion, and suffering with more sympathy than is often acknowledged. But both his background and his sense of himself as an autonomous artist-observer endowed his art with a bracing quality of detachment.

The tension between this detachment — expressed through his fabulously controlled line — and the extreme intimacy and streaming coloration of his late imagery is the source of its inextinguishable power.

The struggling, impoverished Picasso, meanwhile — a habitué of brothels, cafes, circuses, and nightclubs — was bohemia incarnate. He didn’t just sympathize with the downtrodden; he genuinely identified with them. His youthful imagery is thus dripping with sentimentality and self-pity. He needed cooler heads like Ingres and Cézanne — and, on the evidence of this show, Degas — to teach him the aesthetic rewards of disinterest.

The show skips over the whole heroic period of cubism, which Picasso invented with Braque in 1908, and leaps ahead to 1917. This was the year Degas died and Picasso took up with the ballerina Olga Khokhlova. The next year, Degas’s estate went up for sale. Even in the context of World War I’s demoralizing fourth year, the event caught the attention of the international art world. One of the revelations of the sale, which was spread over three auctions, was the sheer quantity of works by Degas on the theme of the ballet.

So just as Picasso was getting deeply involved with a dancer and with the Ballets Russes (he designed the set and costumes for the 1917 ballet “Parade’’), Degas, the greatest painter of dance in history, was back on his mind. A section of the show places his drawings of ballet dancers, both dancing and waiting in the wings, alongside Degas’s more famous treatments of the same subjects. It’s a delight.

In the year before he died, with his eyesight failing, Degas effectively transposed his sense of sight to that of touch, modeling brilliant sculptures of horses, women performing their ablutions, and dancers. The first exhibition to show the sculptures in their entirety was held in 1931.

Picasso saw the show, and that same year produced his own series of bronze sculptures of dancing figures in a deliberately clunky, inelegant, asymmetrical style.

Displayed in pairs, the evidence of direct influence seems undeniable. But even better is the demonstration of the mature Picasso’s mischievous, uninhibited attitude to his artistic patrimony. He was brazen!

One sees it again in those late, erotic prints, in which Picasso is able to salute Degas even as he mocks his Victorian-era voyeurism. Oedipal? You bet.

For me, the strongest part of the show is the one that compares Degas’s great images of female bathers washing and drying themselves, or wringing out and brushing their hair, with similar subjects by Picasso. It’s here that we see Picasso responding to the example of Degas in terms not just of subject matter but of sensibility.

In the pre-cubist portraits of Fernande, such as the charcoal and pencil sketch “Woman Combing Her Hair,’’ we see Picasso, for the first time, sloughing off sentimentality and imbuing his art with the glint of icy detachment that paves the way for all his later innovations. The rhymes — as much psychological as visual — with Degas’s sketch “Woman Combing Her Hair’’ and the bronze sculpture “Woman Arranging Her Hair (La Coiffure)’’ are amazing.

The intimate acts of bathing and hair-brushing are transposed by both these artists into a kind of dream of rebirth, as if not just sentimentality but history itself could be cast off and the human form presented afresh.

You see it in Degas’s dazzling “Combing the Hair (La Coiffure)’’ from London’s National Gallery, in which the reference to society (a woman and her maid) is all but obliterated by Degas’s drenching palette of pinks, oranges, and reds (no wonder Matisse bought it). And you see it in Picasso’s captivating 1952 painting “Nude Wringing Her Hair,’’ which, again, turns a private moment into something fresh, frank, and monumental.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the delights this show has to offer. What a shame it would be to miss it.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at

PICASSO LOOKS AT DEGAS At: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, through Sept. 12. 413-458-2303,