Lasting impressions of horses Art: French artist Edgar Degas is known for his paintings of women. But he also explored horse racing.

Sun Journal

May 15, 1998|By Bennard Perlman | Bennard Perlman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Degas and racing? The two seem incongruous for those who associate the artist with subjects such as ballet dancers, laundresses and women at the bath. But, as Washington's National Gallery of Art demonstrates with its current exhibition "Degas at the Races" (through July 12), Edgar Degas' interest in horse racing occupied a sizable portion of his productivity for nearly a half-century.

One of the old saws regarding Degas is that he was a dandy who attended the races to gaze upon the spectators rather than the participants. But if the 128 works in the exhibit are any indication, what he observed, drew and ultimately painted was the horsemen's preparation, as well as the race itself.

At Argentan, Longchamp and Epsom, he sketched horses and jockeys exiting the paddock, the parade before the race, a rearing horse, a false start and a jockey thrown by his mount. The concentration is almost always on rider and steed.

In fact, this leading Impressionist's devotion to horses and racing transcended his visual art. Degas wrote eight sonnets, the first

of which was titled "Thoroughbred" and begins:

You can hear him coming, his

pace checked by the bit,

His breath strong and sound.

Ever since dawn

The groom has been putting him

through his paces

And the brave colt, galloping, cuts

through the dew.

Degas was a man for all media. His work reveals a mastery of graphite, pastel, charcoal, monotype prints, brush-and-ink, gouache, wash, watercolor and oils. The drawings are on a variety of plain white and colored paper.

Like so many French artists of his day, Hilaire Germain Edgar De Gas, as he was named at birth, was captivated by the design and asymmetrical balance of Japanese prints. That interest permeates his drawings of ballet dancers, but it also is revealed in his horse and racing compositions. The forms of jockeys and their mounts are overlapped in original ways, encouraging the viewer's eye to follow as the artist leads from shape to shape.

In "Hacking to the Track," for instance, a series of background trees, their trunks leaning rather than upright, emphasize the diagonals of various horses' legs. "The Racecourse" includes several jockeys' slouched bodies, which repeat the curvilinear lines of their mounts' manes. And "Before the Race," an oil borrowed for the exhibit from the Walters Art Gallery, features a dominant angle formed by the outline of the mane and head of one horse that leads rhythmically into the mane and head of another.

"Before the Race" was painted on a wood panel on which the artist created two of the foreground steeds with thin washes of pigment. The brown grain of the wood shows through and becomes the color and texture of the animals' bodies.

Sometimes Degas' quick sketches of horses' legs and hoofs caused him problems, for capturing their movement in the days before stop-action photography was difficult at best. (This explains why so many earlier landscape artists preferred to avoid painting horses in favor of cows, which are easier because they stand motionless for long periods.)

The salvation for Degas was the multiple photographs of animal and human locomotion by the London-born American photographer Eadweard Muybridge.

Muybridge's name had made news in 1872, when Leland Stanford, a former governor of California and a prominent horseman, bet $25,000 against William Randolph Hearst that a galloping horse simultaneously lifts all four hoofs off the ground. Photographer Muybridge set up a battery of cameras with fast-action shutters that were activated when wires stretched across a track were tripped by a moving horse.

Examples of Muybridge's multiple images of trotting and galloping horses were subsequently reproduced in a French magazine, and Degas fashioned wax sculptures from a few of Muybridge's photos, then used the small, three-dimensional models as the basis for some of his oils. The National Gallery exhibition includes 16 of these models in six display cases near the corresponding Degas drawings and paintings.

In addition to his wax sculptures, Degas relied on little wooden horses he kept in his studio, confiding to a friend: "When I come back from the races, I use these as models. I could not get along without them. You can't turn live horses around to get the proper effects of light."

By the turn of the century, this painter of light all but abandoned the racing theme and concentrated on his earlier love, the female figure. A decade before, he had written: "I have not done enough horses. The women must wait in their basins." Now was their turn. In his studio, Degas could pose his nudes to receive the ideal light effects he sought.

Baltimore, too, has a current art offering of special interest to racing fans in the form of the William Woodward Wing and Collection, comprising more than 50 paintings of thoroughbred horses depicted by 18th- and 19th-century artists.

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