New York Review of Books
May 12, 2016
Edgar Degas was a paradoxical man, disconcerting in both his actions and his appearance. “With his silk hat on his head, his blue spectacles over his eyes—not to forget the umbrella—he is the image of a notary, a bourgeois of the time of Louis-Philippe,” according to Paul Gauguin. A notary, really? Not to the eyes of Paul Valéry, who describes him opening the door of his atelier, “shuffling about in slippers, dressed like a pauper, his trousers hanging, never buttoned.” The portrait painter Jacques-Émile Blanche saw him as neither a bourgeois nor an artist, but as
a platoon commander on a drill field; if he makes a gesture, that gesture is imperious, as expressive as his hand in drawing; but he quickly retreats to a pose as defensive as that of a woman concealing her nakedness, the habit of a solitary soul who veils or protects his personality.
Degas himself, toward the end of his life, nearly blind, painted a self-portrait and said that he looked like an old dog, while his friend the sculptor Bartholomé found him to be “more beautiful than ever, like an old Homer with his eyes fixed on eternity.”
He never had one quality without having its opposite:
Degas could be charming or unpleasant. He possessed—and affected—the worst possible disposition; yet there were days when he was quite unpredictably delightful.More