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Exhibit reveals how Rembrandt led Degas into Impressionism

Thursday, November 24, 2011
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“Self-Portrait as a Young Man,” 1629, by Rembrandt van Rijn
“Self-Portrait as a Young Man,” 1629, by Rembrandt van Rijn

— What could Rembrandt van Rijn and Edgar Degas have in common?

They painted 200 years apart. And their artworks — Rembrandt’s are considered masterpieces of the Golden Age of Dutch art and Degas’ a foundation of French Impressionism — stand stylistically apart.

But Sarah Lees, associate curator of European art at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, contends that Rembrandt was a major influence on the artistic freeing of Degas, that his study of early Rembrandt etchings and paintings guided him down the path to Impressionism.

‘Rembrandt & Degas: Two Young Artists’

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday, through Feb. 5

WHERE: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown, Mass.

HOW MUCH: Museum is free through May

MORE INFO: 413-458-2303, www.clarkart.edu

That connection is revealed and explored in the newest exhibition at the Clark museum, “Rembrandt & Degas: Two Young Artists.”

Clear evidence

“There was always a belief that Degas was influenced by Rembrandt,” said Lees. “But after some research, it has been discovered that there is fairly clear documentary evidence of Degas’ serious interest in Rembrandt’s work.”

That interest began in 1856, when Degas moved from Paris to study independently in Italy. The artist, then around 22, was fleeing his disappointment in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he felt artistically constrained.

In Rome, with printmaker Joseph Tourney and painter Gustave Moreau, Degas pored over and copied the early works of Renaissance artists. Yet it was his examination of the young Dutchman’s atypical approach to shadow and brushstroke by which he discovered his soul as a portrait painter.

The exhibition, which originated at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where the Rembrandt/Degas research was conceived, sheds light on this theory by comparing self-portraits by both when they were rising artists in their early 20s. In paintings, drawings and etchings, placed side-by-side, Degas’ affection for Rembrandt’s experimentation is conspicuous.

“Degas’ self-portrait and Rembrandt’s self-portrait can be seen as comparable on every level,” said Lees. “Rembrandt’s early self-portrait is free of what was recommended by academic art, especially his use of light and darkness. There was a mystery to Rembrandt’s early self-portrait.”

In that early portrait, Rembrandt also dug into the paint, emphasizing the curl in his hair, as well as laying on more paint on his collar and his earlobe, lending them a distinctive plushness.

The exhibition compares Rembrandt’s to Degas’ self-portraits — one that he created during his Paris period and one that he painted after his study of Rembrandt. In the Paris oil, Degas cultivates the smooth style of the academy. But even there, the light and shadow that dramatically falls on Degas’ face contradicts his French training.

After a time in Italy, Degas’ self-portrait is transformed. Rijksmuseum curator Jenny Reynaerts, who did most of the research, points out that he adopted a looser style. And even though Degas never saw the Rembrandt self-portraits that make up the exhibition, there were striking similarities in the pose and lighting.

In yet another, later Degas self-portrait, the artist shifts from the typical three-quarter bearing to a straight face-to-face with the viewer. In addition, the smock that he wears is blurred, which Reynaerts believes supports his newfound liberal method of painting, inspired by Rembrandt.

The most solid evidence of Rembrandt’s hold over Degas comes from Degas’ copying of Rembrandt’s work, which was a common practice among art students of the day. He not only copied Rembrandt’s works in drawings, but he also mimicked his styles in etchings, as a Degas sketchbook reveals.

A comparison of Rembrandt’s etching “Young Man in a Velvet Cap” and Degas’ “Young Man, Seated in Velvet Beret” shows this influence. Nearly identical, the etchings prove, says Lees, “the deep connection between the artists.”

Modest showcase

Among the many special exhibitions that travel to the Clark, this one making its American debut, the showcase is more modest than most. It features only 24 works including the two Rembrandt portraits from the Rijksmuseum and the Alte Pinakothek museum in Munich. It also highlights the Clark’s own Degas self-portrait and others borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (where the exhibition travels next), the J. Paul Getty Museum and a private collector.

A large section of the exhibition is also devoted to the process of etching, an artform of which Rembrandt was considered a master. While the process fell out of favor after Rembrandt, Degas was among a group of artists who rediscovered it in the 1850s.

“We delve into the technical side of etching,” said Lees. “It was not all that prevalent, but Rembrandt was considered an excellent draftsman. In his time, he was the primary figure.”

Rembrandt’s abilities are displayed in his “Self-Portrait Drawing at a Window.” The etching, offered in various states, demonstrates how the feel of the image shifted, both subtly and greatly, by his altering of the number, depth or the burnishing of the lines.

As for Degas, two self-portraits, both etchings, further support how the etched line can affect mood; but more significantly, how much he revered Rembrandt.

“Rembrandt was one of many artists that Degas studied. But he chose Rembrandt above all others,” said Lees. “It’s interesting that he would choose someone so unconventional.”

Thus making it clear, said Lees, that “Before Degas had a reputation, Rembrandt pointed the way.”

 
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