Hear the name Degas and it’s pretty likely that you’ll conjure up images of ballet dancers in your mind’s eye. And it’s true, the world of dancers must have been an obsession for him. What he saw in the rehearsal rooms and cramped backstage areas and theatre wings was an authentic form of life-drawing. When posing for artists, models will find a position which is comfortable and sustainable for a long time. Clearly, what Degas liked was natural movement (the kind which photographers were later able to capture) and he must have melted into the backstage world, in the way a ‘fly on the wall’ film crew would these days, to observe movement and capture it in sketches.
What I didn’t know was that Degas often used to reproduce his drawings directly from his sketchbooks onto tracing paper. Now, tracing paper is not a great surface for pastel, his preferred medium, but he found a clever way to get over that issue. He created layers of pastel and found a way to fix the dusty pigment with fixative (made to a secret recipe) and just kept building up the layers. The results are very painterly and, from a distance, it’s quite hard to tell the difference between the oil paintings and the pastels. But he uses the lines of pastel in a strong and gestural way.The collection at the National Gallery for this show, Drawn in Colour, makes fulsome use of pictures from the magnificent Burrell Collection. Mingled with existing National Gallery pictures it’s possible to read the progress and passions of this tremendous artist. As well as the dancers there are the enigmatic and quite beguiling images of women bathing – again, the question arises, did these women pose, were they happy for the artist to observe them in their baths (great saucer like dishes) in intimate activity.
It’s great to see some of the horse racing pictures and sketches too. The challenge of capturing subjects which never stay still must be really something but he manages to create a sense of strength, anticipation and harnessed speed within the figures champing on the grass, being maintained by their jockeys. The show is also a tribute to the extraordinary eye of Sir William Burrell (1861 – 1958) who had the foresight and funds to amass one of the UK’s greatest private art collections.
The show is on at the National Gallery in the Ground Floor Galleries until 7th May 2018. Admission Free.