THE EXHIBITION

“What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters,” stated the French artist Edgar Degas (1834–1917) late in life. Among those he studied most closely was the Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669).

By examining Rembrandt’s work—and his prints in particular—Degas discovered an approach to portraiture and self-portraiture that emphasized the expressive and technical potential of the form, an approach that was not encouraged in Degas’s traditional early training. After enrolling briefly at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he soon began to turn away from standard academic models that emphasized clarity and line.

In 1856 Degas embarked on a three-year trip to Italy to study classical sculpture and Renaissance painting. While in Italy, he saw a number of prints by Rembrandt in Italian collections and copied several in his drawings and sketch books, developing one of them into his own etching after Rembrandt.

Inspired by the Dutch artist’s example, Degas made a series of self-portraits that explored a range of tonal effects, from subtle shading to dramatic contrasts of light and dark, just as Rembrandt had done as a young artist in Leiden and Amsterdam. This series of some forty paintings, prints, and drawings dates to Degas’s early years, between about 1854 and 1862, when the choice of a non-academic role model helped to define Degas’s identity as one of the emerging leaders of the French avant-garde. 

This exhibition was organized by the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, in association with the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Rembrandt van Rijn, “Self-Portrait as a Young Man,” c. 1628–29. Oil on panel. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Purchased with the support of the Vereniging Rembrandt, with additional funding from the Prins Bernhard Fonds, the Stichting tot Bevordering van de Belangen van het Rijksmuseum, and the ministerie van CRM (SK-A-4691)

 

In this dramatic painting, the artist has cast nearly all of his face in deep shadow, so that his eyes are barely perceptible. This highly unconventional approach encourages the viewer to look more closely while it also negates one of the traditional functions of a portrait: to show a recognizable likeness.

Edgar Degas, “Self-Portrait,” c. 1857–58. Oil on paper mounted on canvas. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA (1955.544)

 

The shadowed yet direct gaze, the pose and composition, and even the uncharacteristically casual scarf in this image may all derive in part from Rembrandt’s numerous self-portraits. This painting was made when Degas was studying—and in one case copying—Rembrandt’s prints in Italian collections.

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