This is the second of three posts looking at how some representational painters have used optical devices and photography in their quest to capture images of the world around them. In the first post we described aspects of Johannes Vermeer’s paintings that seem to be influenced by the camera obscura. In this post we will focus on the work of the 19th century French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas.
Edgar Degas is best known for his paintings and sculptures but he was also an avid photographer who experimented with this newly invented media. Degas’ photos captured the same unguarded moments that his paintings are noted for. This photograph, for example, shows a young dancer adjusting the shoulder strap of her costume.
The Absinthe Drinker is oil on canvas painted in 1875. By the time Degas painted this scene he was very familiar with the way photos looked and you can easily see their influence here.
The painting is done in high contrast with sharp jumps between darks and lights, similar to the visual qualities of early photographs. The figure on the right is partially cut off by the edge of the composition and is even looking away from the viewer. The table tops and bench in the painting zig-zag across the canvas as though the composition had been quickly seen rather than carefully constructed by an artist. There are random objects on the tables that aren’t really defined, they just happen to be in the scene. The painting, in general, seems more like a casual photograph than a studied composition.
Amateur Jockeys Near A Carriage, is oil on canvas painted in 1876. Once again Degas employs multiple effects borrowed from photography.
As in The Absinthe Drinker, the figure in the extreme foreground of this painting is cut off by the edge of the composition and is looking away from the viewer. The horses are depicted in a state of tension as they prance around the grounds ready for the race to begin. These are hardly the classical noble steeds we would expect to see in a typical 19th century painting. The row of spectators behind the horses is blurred in a manner similar to the selective focus produced by a camera lens. And the moving train in the distance – evidenced by the trail of steam pouring from its locomotive – is a whole other event that just happens to have been caught in the composition.
In both of these paintings there is an overriding sense of being in the moment – of capturing a fleeting glance at a scene or an experience that is about to happen. Important subject matter is treated casually and almost cropped out of the picture entirely. Incidental objects appear in the compositions like the clutter of real life captured by a camera recording a scene.
This is not the only way to see and consider these paintings by Degas but given his intense interest in photography it makes sense to examine the influence of that new media on his painting. The photograph as a brand new way of seeing and composing is an obvious influence on his art.