Nude figures are central to the work of Edgar Degas (1834-1917), from his early works in the first half of the 1850s to the final years of his artistic activity on the eve of the First World War. Even more than the dancers, the scenes of horse racing and urban life, or the portraits that made him famous, the nude was the genre Degas used to introduce new ideas and develop his style over the course of almost fifty years.
Degas was noted for his innovative temperament, which expressed itself in many different areas. The works brought together here have been selected because they show the variety of techniques that Degas tackled in his search for new expressive possibilities. In addition to drawing and painting, the artist was particularly fond of pastel as it could be used spontaneously with no preparation or drying time, giving him the option to rework the image. Degas was also renowned for having rediscovered the principle of the "monotype", a print that does not require engraving, which he sometimes highlighted with pastel. He also tried his hand at etching, lithography and particularly at sculpture, which increasingly occupied him as his sight failed in the late 1880s.
And so this first monographic exhibition devoted to the nude enables us to trace the whole of the artist's career, through all the media he used, from his early academic training to his most radical and simplified figures, and including his Naturalist years. Degas no longer put forward an idealised nude, but rather a representation of the naked body, unheard of until then. This exhibition also places Degas' work in the context of the time when it was created, through a selection of works produced during his lifetime by artists who influenced him (Ingres, Delacroix), those who worked at the same time (Caillebotte, Renoir) or those he inspired (Matisse, Picasso). This exhibition aims to help explain why Degas occupies such an important place in the history of 19th century art, highlighting his ability to bring together the classical culture of his era and the avant-garde movements of the 20th century, through works that are seldom exhibited together because of their fragility and their diversity.
Like all the young people of his generation who wanted a career in art, Degas received a training based on drawing nude figures. Considered to be the most difficult and the most instructive exercise, l'académie – the study of the nude figure that generated many of the drawings presented here – was taught in the studios where Degas started his training, those of Barrias (1822-1907) and Lamothe (1822-1869), both disciples of Ingres. Artists at that time learned the art of painting the nude by copying the sculptures of classical antiquity and the old masters, or by working from a life model.
Firstly at the Louvre and the Cabinet des Estampes in the Bibliothèque Nationale, then during an extended trip around Italy from 1856 to 1859 when he visited the greatest Renaissance museums and monuments, Degas built up a great understanding of the painting of his illustrious predecessors that would accompany all of his stylistic evolutions, even the most avant-garde.
However, by looking to the past, Degas was not searching for a model to follow slavishly but rather a series of perspectives that would enable him to create his own style. It is this synthesis that explains the originality of Degas' compositions, even though these early paintings are in the great historical genre beloved by the academicians of the time. Thus, Young Spartans Exercising, evokes Antiquity but mainly provides the artist with an opportunity to demonstrate his research into the human figure, if we are to believe the many studies he had produced earlier. The accuracy of his drawing certainly conforms to the teaching he had received, but the attention given to the gestures appears to be totally original.