It is a strange yet common tendency of the beginner artist to think that the use of a reference object or image — a live model, for example, or a photograph — is somehow cheating. The beginner thinks, as I have thought at times, that a true artist is able to generate beautiful pictures directly from his or her imagination, without having to “copy” from something in front of them. Of course, this idea is both accurate and completely misleading. Many artists, through rigorous training and ongoing practice, have internalized the makeup and proportions of the human body (to take a common subject) and can render it at will — this being more than adequate a skill for artists employed in the fields of, say, fashion design or advertising. But many other artists regularly use live models or photographs as reference points, either because they are trying to capture the look of a specific person (rather than an imaginary one), or because they are trying to understand more perfectly the human form itself. Some, of course, are trying to do both.
Edgar Degas (1834-1917) used models extensively, in both informal and a formal settings. Fascinated by the world of dancing from his early 30s, he spent many of his days at the Paris Opéra, watching ballet classes, rehearsals, and performances, and studying dancers engaged in their art before an audience, relaxing in the wings, and sitting exhausted after a class. Such observation equipped him to conceive and compose pictures that captured the full reality of another art form, and of a profession, in an unprecedentedly honest and clear-sighted way. Yet Degas also spent hours in his dingy, ill-lit studio working with live models — often dancers — in a quest to more perfectly depict the human body in specific poses. Again and again he sketched positions and variations of positions; when satisfied with a particular figure he would often use it (and its variations) in more than one painting. “No art is less spontaneous than mine,” he once declared.
His methods and mentality may have been deliberate, but the subjects that enchanted Degas were so often dynamic ones. He was fascinated by movement, whether expressed through the athletic grace of ballet dancers or in the coiled energy of racehorses, another of his favoured subjects. “[He is] one of the most perfect painters of horses who have ever existed,” wrote the French art critic Camille Mauclair in The French Impressionists (1904). “Degas assembles original groups of horses which one can see moving, hesitating, intensely alive…” In “The False Start” (1869-72), a race horse has burst from the gate at full gallop, its ears back and legs at full stride, while its jockey leans backwards and pulls on the reins, trying — vainly so far — to get his mount to check its course and return to the starting line. It is an image that gains power from the speed and energy of the horse, but at the same time conveys a physical tension as the jockey pulls in the opposite direction to the horse’s forward plunge. The horse looks surprised, in fact, and well it might. It is motion in the process of being arrested.
Yet while a jockey can stop a horse, it is much more difficult for an artist to accurately capture a single moment in a rapid series of equine movements. Observe the splayed legs of the race horse in the above painting: though the wide separation between front and back hooves and their lack of contact with the ground connotes an almost frantic rapidity, the image does not depict any part of a real horse’s gallop, since the only time that all four hooves are off the ground is in fact when they are close together under the horse. Since a horse moving at full tilt is impossible to analyze with the naked eye, for hundreds of years European artists — including the ones that Degas studied before creating his own horse paintings — regularly painted horses splay-legged and airborne at the gallop.
Dancers, of course, present similar difficulties for the unaided eye. Though not moving at a horse’s blistering pace of 40 to 50 miles per hour, performers change direction and pose frequently. But dance being a deliberate and designed art form (through choreography), it is at least in theory amenable to being drawn. Since steps are learned the lesson room and polished in rehearsal, they can be demonstrated — a particular pose held for longer than normal — for the benefit of the artist. Degas in his studio accomplished wondrous things with such help.
Yet dancers and models tired, and even the most kinetic pose could lose its tone and sense of movement from being held too long. The advent of photography offered a possible solution. Though Degas sometimes expressed skepticism about the new technology and its artistic credentials, privately he experimented a great deal with it. As is generally recognized today, his photos were for the most part artworks in themselves, but three undeveloped negatives of dancers (below) show that Degas experimented with photography as a means of capturing poses for use as references [Note: thanks to Jim Gurney for posting on this earlier in the month]. Poet and intellectual Paul Valéry, who knew Degas well, observed that the painter was trying “to combine the snapshot with the endless labour of the studio …the instantaneous given enduring quality by the patience of intense meditation.”
In the 1890s, however, photography was hardly a matter of taking “snapshots”. Long periods were required to properly expose the negative with an image, and models could grow almost as exhausted holding poses for a camera as for the charcoal stick of the sketch artist. Though he did use the three photographs as references for later paintings, Degas soon found that he could capture as much necessary detail from sketching as from photography. Though he would continue to experiment with photography, he does not seem to have used it to create reference images after this occasion.
All to the good, perhaps, for there are greater virtues in art than perfect physical accuracy. Mauclair provided an astute description of Degas’s method of depicting motion, and of its positive attributes:
…with the help of slight deformations, accentuations of the modelling and subtle falsifications of the proportions, managed with infinite tact and knowledge, the artist brings forth in relief the important gesture, subordinating to it all the others. He attempts drawing by movement as it is caught by our eyes in life, where they do not state the proportions, but first of all the gesture that strikes them… This is no longer merely exact, it is true; it is a superior degree of truth.
Photography did finally catch up with Degas — passing close enough, at least, to provide him with a final and this time useful reference. By the late 1880s, English photographer Eadweard J. Muybridge developed a form of stop-motion photography that showed, frame by frame, exactly how a person or a horse moved. Writes Degas biographer and Columbia University art historian Theodore Reff, “After having drawn for twenty years on the conventional image of the horse in English sporting prints, Géricault’s equestrian pictures, and Meissonier’s battle scenes, Degas must have been amazed to discover, as Meissonier himself was, that in many respects that image was wrong.” Ever deliberate, ever serious, Degas referred to Muybridge’s multi-volume Animal Locomotion (1887) from then on.