Monday, December 22, 2014

The Unusual Compositions of Edgar Degas Show the Growing Influence of Photography in 19th-Century Painting

Although a camera that could produce permanent images was invented as early as 1790 by Thomas Wedgwood, it wasn't until the 1800s that photography became more widespread as technology advanced to make it more accessible. There was not yet a camera in every home, as there would be by the snapshot-crazy 1960s and 70s, but by the late 19th century, people who were not necessarily photographers could at least start to dabble.

The French artist Edgar Degas, who exhibited with the Impressionists but did not consider himself one, was enamored of photography and frequently used a camera to record his subjects for later reference. This can be easily seen by observing the composition of many of paintings. Many artists still used the more formal, traditionally posed compositions for their paintings, but the work of Degas shows a more immediate, casual glimpse at his subjects, as they are captured at a moment in their normal lives, not pulled from them to pose stiffly in a contrived setup.

Degas was famous for his paintings of ballet dancers, many of which he produced owing both to an interest in the subject and because the subject sold well. Considering the stage settings and costumes could certainly have been easily used as props for attractively staged compositions, Degas chose to go behind the scenes, giving us a look at the more raw, unfinished and ultimately more lively rehearsal scenes. As can be seen in this pastel from 1874, The Rehearsal Onstage, the uneven bunching of subjects, active poses, abrupt cropping, and even the unexpected intrusion into the foreground of the neck of an instrument gives this work an immediate, informal feel, like a candid snapshot.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

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