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Mad for Degas

 
How Paul Sachs, Agnes Mongan, and other art selectors assembled one of the most important Degas collections in the United States

In 1911 the little Fogg Art Museum mounted the only one-man museum exhibition to occur during his lifetime of works by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (1834-1917). It was a daring departure from practice. The artist was not a dead Old Master. His subjects, realistically represented—jockeys, ballet girls, laundresses, and what a critic called “creatures whose chief pre-occupation seems to be…the taking of baths”—seemed to some viewers unworthy of attention. One painting, The Interior, raised worrisome questions about the artist’s moral standards. It shows a bedroom and a man and a woman who seem to have quarreled. When the picture was shown to the purchase committee of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which meant to buy it, ladies on the committee nixed the deal, allegedly deducing that the couple weren’t married as the bed was a single bed. (Degas left the work untitled; a year after the exhibition, critics chose a second name for it, The Rape. The painting is ambiguous.)

Although the loan show consisted of only 12 works, was up only nine and a half days, and generated expenses of $178.70 (more than the $158.98 raised to fund it), Edward W. Forbes, A.B. 1895, who had become director of the Fogg in 1909, judged the exhibition a success. A high-Brahmin Bostonian with a penchant for early Italian pictures, he wrote a disdainful patron: “I think this show is an excellent thing for the Fogg Museum. It is bringing hundreds of people into the building who would never come before and who, perhaps, could have been reached in no other way except by a modern show.” Attendance totaled 550.

Thus began the museum’s keen and continuing interest in this artist, now celebrated in an exhibition, Degas at Harvard, which encompasses 62 works in many media (including a book of sonnets) gathered from the Fogg, the Houghton Library, and Dumbarton Oaks, Harvard’s research library and art collection in Washington, D.C. It will run from August 1 to November 27, filling the galleries of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum. It has been organized by Edward Saywell, Cunningham curatorial associate in drawings, and Stephan Wolohojian, curator in the Department of Paintings, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts. Their objective was to tell the history of the still-growing collection and to put it all up on the walls for the first time so that students, other curators, and the public might study it. A fall lecture series will bring leading Degas scholars to speak about the exhibition, and Wolohojian will teach a seminar using the show as a laboratory.

In a substantial and jolly essay in the exhibition catalog, Marjorie B. Cohn—who has just retired as Weyerhaeuser curator of prints after a 44-year career—chronicles how madness for Degas has motivated curators, the collectors they encourage and cultivate, and their students, many of whom go on to shape museums elsewhere. She gives an instructive account of how this teaching museum works and how curators conceive their duty.

First among the mad was Paul J. Sachs, of the class of 1900, eldest son of Samuel and Louisa Goldman Sachs, who left Wall Street and a career in banking in 1914 to join Forbes as professor of fine arts and associate director. Either by hunting them down in dealers’ galleries and buying them, or by persuading loyal collectors to give or bequeath them, Sachs brought many works by Degas into the Fogg; 22 came from his own collection. (The exhibition catalog also contains an essay by Degas expert and retired museum professional Jean Sutherland Boggs, Ph.D. ’53, who in 1944 became a student of Sachs’s and later left, trailing Degas behind her, to spread the faith elsewhere.) Sach’s acolyte Agnes Mongan, who spent much of her long Fogg career as curator of drawings, was also notably mad for Degas. And so was James Cuno, Ph.D. ’85, who served for 11 years, until 2003, as the Fogg’s director. Despite his administrative duties, he insisted on teaching one regular course—on Degas—and he was determined to mount an exhibition of Harvard’s resources for the study of the artist.

In 1988 Boggs organized an important, all-encompassing Degas survey exhibition that traveled internationally, and Cuno saw it. “I was just blown away by the size, quality, range of media, and relentless experimentation of his work,” he wrote to Cohn. “I thought that had I been an artist seeing that show, I’d have given it up: there’d be no room for me or my work in the universe of art making, so much of it did Degas already occupy.”

 

All photographs courtesy of the Harvard University Art Museums. ©President and Fellows of Harvard College

 

 

The Rehearsal. Circa 1873-1878. Oil on canvas. 18 by 23 2/3 inches.

Of the 12 works, all borrowed, in the 1911 Degas exhibition at the Fogg, only this one belongs to the museum today. It came in 1951 in the trove of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art bequeathed by Maurice Wertheim of the class of 1906. He began collecting in 1936, and Paul Sachs and Agnes Mongan of the Fogg steered first-rate works his way with hope for the museum’s future, among them Singer with a Glove (page 45). About the time Degas painted The Rehearsal, author and critic Edmond de Goncourt visited the artist’s studio and wrote, “Of all the men I have seen engaged in depicting modern life, he is the one who has most successfully rendered the inner nature of that life.”



 

After the Bath, Woman with a Towel. Circa 1893-1897. Pastel on blue-gray, wove paper. 27 7/8 by 22 1/2 inches.

This superb, late pastel stands apart from every other Degas in the Fogg’s collection, writes Marjorie Cohn in the catalog for the current show, “[i]n its reliance on shape and not line, hue and not tone….” Edward Forbes tried to borrow the drawing from Boston collector Sarah Choate Sears for the 1911 show. She declined, pleading the picture’s fragility, but in 1927 she gave her bather to the museum. On thin and brittle paper, the drawing has been kept safe in the paper conservation laboratory, awaiting the development of techniques to preserve it, and is now shown to the public for the first time in 40 years.



 

Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen. 1880. Bronze with tulle skirt and satin hair ribbon. 39 by 14 by 14 inches.

Using up all the gasoline-rationing stamps the staff could muster in 1943, Cohn reports, a convoy of trucks conveyed from Manhattan to Cambridge the thousands of paintings, sculptures, jades and bronzes, clocks, furniture, rugs, and ceramics bequeathed by Grenville L. Winthrop, A.B. 1885, among them this iconic bronze. Since the first exhibition of the wax original of the Little Dancer, in 1880, “this work has been one of the most celebrated sculptures of the modern age,” write Edward Saywell and Stephan Wolohojian, organizers of the current exhibition. “Dressed in a fabric tutu and originally adorned with a hair wig and silk ribbon, the flesh-colored sculpture was a sensation….[and] was regarded by some critics as a masterpiece of naturalism. Joris-Karl Huysman noted in 1883, for example: ‘…M. Degas has overthrown the traditions of sculpture, as he has for a long time been shaking up the conventions of painting.’ ” Little Dancer was not cast in bronze until 1921, after the artist’s death.



 

Mme. Olivier Villette. 1872. Oil on linen canvas. 18 1/4 by 13 inches.

The Fogg acquired its first Degas in 1925, a gift from C. Chauncey Stillman, A.B. 1898. A member of the Fogg’s visiting committee, he tagged along with Paul Sachs and Edward Forbes on one of their regular visits to art dealers in New York and bought this painting for the museum. “Don’t overlook the fun I’ve had in sending that Degas on to the Fogg Art,” he wrote to Sachs. “For days I’ve been chuckling about it. It was about [word crossed out] the only thing we saw, which you wanted, and which came within my means.” Curators Saywell and Wolohojian write, “This rapidly executed work exemplifies the formal inventiveness of the artist’s mature style. He challenges the viewer by silhouetting Mme. Villette against the expansive window, each pane of which seems to depict an independent view of urban Paris.”



 

After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself. Circa 1893-1898. Crayon on yellow tracing paper. 31 1/2 by 35 1/2 inches.

The poet Richard Wilbur remembers attending in 1947 a seminar taught by Sachs’s successor in the Department of Fine Arts, Frederick Deknatel, and curator of drawings Agnes Mongan, and being shown a number of late Degas drawings of women bathing. “We discussed whether or not—in a female nude awkwardly toweling herself after a bath—there was an element of sadism,” he told Marjorie Cohn. This is an old theme in Degas discourse, she writes, “But it is amazing to imagine Agnes Mongan participating in the continuing critical discussion of Degas the misogynist. She was a fearsome defender of proprieties, wearing gloves and a hat with a veil to her classes even in the 1960s.”



 

Dancers, Nude Study. 1899. Charcoal and red-brown pastel on cream, wove paper. 30 3/4 by 22 7/8 inches.

“This magnificent drawing exemplifies the technical mastery and innovation of the serial, repetitive compositional practices characteristic of Degas’s late oeuvre,” write Saywell and Wolohojian. Acquired by the late Joseph Pulitzer Jr. ’36, a pupil of Sachs’s, it is a partial and promised gift to the Fogg by Emily Rauh Pulitzer, A.M. ’63, chair of the visiting committee, in honor of former Harvard University Art Museums director James Cuno, who taught a course on Degas.



 

Study for “A Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers (Madame Paul Valpinçon?)” 1865. Graphite on off-white, wove paper. 14 by 9 1/6 inches.

One evening in 1934, Sachs assembled the 21 Degas drawings then in the Fogg’s collection and he and visiting art historian Henri Focillon pored over them. Both placed this drawing at center stage. Sachs wrote that “this wistful drawing, more than any in the lot, seemed to us to illustrate perfectly the superb capacity of Degas as a draftsman.…We were…baffled by the ingenuity of the artist who, with such economy of means, could render those qualities of French charm and repose which set their stamp of time, place, station and nationality upon the sitter.”





 

Portrait of a Woman, after a Drawing in the Uffizi then Attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Circa 1858-59. Graphite on off-white, wove paper. 15 3/8by 10 1/2 inches.

Degas was himself a great collector of art and one of the most passionate copyists of his time. He made this copy when he was in Florence working on his portrait of the Bellelli family, and, the curators write, “The fundamental lessons about portraiture Degas learned through the close scrutiny of such Renaissance masterworks are felt in the independent portraits he was making at this time.” This drawing was given to the Fogg in May by David M. Leventhal ’71, in honor of Marjorie Cohn. The Degas collection is still growing.



 

Giulia Bellelli, Study for “The Bellelli Family.” 1858-59. Essence (pigment in turpentine or other solvent) on buff, wove paper mounted on panel. 15 1/6 by 10 1/2 inches.

The restive Signorina Bellelli was a Florentine cousin of the artist, and this is a study for the masterpiece of his early career, the group portrait of the Bellelli family. The drawing and an oil by Degas come to the exhibition from their usual habitat, Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., the former home of collectors Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods and Mildred Barnes Bliss.





 

Untitled (The Hourdel Road, near Saint-Valéry-sur-Somme). Probably September 1895. Gelatin silver print, enlarged and printed by Delphine or Guillaume Tasset. 11 by 14 7/8 inches.

Degas explored many media, and more than 60 photographs have been attributed to him. Extant landscapes are exceedingly rare; most are portraits in domestic settings using long exposure times.




 

Horse with Saddle and Bridle. Circa 1868-1870. Black chalk on thin, off-white, wove paper. 9 by 12 1/5 inches.

In 1933 Sachs compiled a list of prospective private buyers of Degas drawings. Grenville Winthrop’s name was on it. He already owned six works by Degas, among them this important drawing of a racehorse. But by then, writes Cohn, Winthrop had become aware of the scale of Sachs’s own collecting of Degas and, sensibly, ceased buying major works by the artist. His racehorse radiates vitality. In discussing the work of Degas, poet Paul Valéry wrote, “No animal is closer to a première danseuse than a perfectly balanced thoroughbred.”



 

Singer with a Glove. Circa 1878. Pastel on canvas. 20 4/5 by 16 1/8 inches.

This chanteuse de café from the Wertheim collection has sung in the Fogg since 1951. “Degas’s interest in depicting the energetic and evocative gestures of such performers,” write Saywell and Wolohojian, “is reflected in a letter in which he urges a friend to ‘go at once to hear Thérésa at the Alcazar. She opens her large mouth and there emerges the most roughly, the most delicately, the most spiritually tender voice imaginable.’”





 

At the Races: The Start. Circa 1860-1862. Oil on canvas. 13 by 18 1/2 inches.

This small oil dynamically depicts the moment before the start of a race at Epsom Downs, in England. It “is one of Degas’s first paintings of the track,” write the exhibition curators. “In this loosely executed canvas, the artist was as keen to capture the fashionable crowds drawn to the races as the horses and jockeys.”