Madame Cardinal scolding an admirer is one of a series of monotypes made c.1880–83 to illustrate Ludovic Halévy’s novel La Famille Cardinal which describes events in the life of the Cardinal family whose daughters, Virginie and Pauline, are ballet dancers at the Opéra.
The story provided Degas with the subject matter of his favoured themes: dancers and the theatre. It is therefore not surprising that the artist did not keep to a strictly literal illustration of the text but tended to choose those situations which characterised theatre life in general. For this reason perhaps they were rejected by Halévy and were not used with the text until the edition by Augustė Blaizot et Fils published in 1938 where our monotype appears in facsimile on p.143.
Degas first used the monotype medium in 1874/5 having been introduced to it by Vicomte Ludovic Napoléon Lepic, an engraver and member of the Société des Aquafortistes. His initial pencil studies for the Cardinal series were done two years later, but it was not until the 1880s that he began systematic work on the monotype illustrations.
Madame Cardinal scolding an admirer probably illustrates a passage from the novel in which the protective and ‘redoubtable’ Madame, having discovered her daughter in the unchaperoned company of males, rebukes her for ‘hanging round the passages’ of the Opéra and reprimands the admirer for encouraging such behaviour by offers to dine. ‘The idea of the Cardinal family capering about in wineshops! Why not Monsieur Cardinal, while you’re about it? Do you mean to make fun of people?’
Degas depicts the incident with sympathetic humour through pose, composition and a controlled yet lively technique. The greater part of the image is created in the light-manner (in which the ink is applied directly onto the plate) although certain effects – notably the dancer’s skirt – are achieved by wiping away the inked plate (the dark-manner). The figure of the top-hatted admirer is executed with the downward strokes of an inked rag which trace a light pattern of vertical striations and which, together with the bemused gesture, suggest an effect of stiff awkwardness. He stands scratching the back of his head, confronted by the fuzzy bulk of Madame Cardinal. Her garment has been inked with purposefully loose strokes in telling contrast with her calligraphically defined, bespectacled face. Between them, in the background, stands the daughter whose features are appropriately differentiated: the hem of her transparent skirt and feet are executed with liquid brush strokes and thinned ink. The area in which the group stands is suggested by the direction of the broad horizontal wipe of ink at the bottom edge and the whole scene is set back by the diagonal of the man’s cane, the bold use of the centrally placed chair and by what appears to be a hanging garment on the left. This positioning of chair and garment in the foreground serves to increase the sense of animation and their cut-off aspect emphasises the ephemeral nature of the scene in a manner similar to the snapshot. Indeed, the composition as a whole illustrates Degas’s debt to photography. Paul Valery observed that Degas ‘was among the first to see what photography could teach the painter and what the painter must be careful not to learn from it … (He tried) to combine the snapshot with the endless labour of the studio … The instantaneous given enduring quality by the patience of intense meditation.’1Quoted in A. Scharf, ‘Painting, Photography and the Image of Movement’, Burlington Magazine May 1962, p. 190.
By the 1880s Degas’s style was tending towards an increasing assimilation of impressionist techniques. However, the blurred contour and the painterly application of ink are effects inherent to the monotype medium, as much as they may be characteristics of impressionist painting. Nevertheless, the use of this medium does locate a change of emphasis for Degas especially since it parallels his growing tendency for pastel. With the use of pastel Degas grew increasingly to understand colour; with monotypes, which he himself described as ‘dessins faits avec l’encre grasse et imprimés’, he learned to compose in tonal areas – shapes rather than lines.
Madame Cardinal scolding an admirer is stamped with the artist’s name and the Atelier Degas stamp and was included in the sale of the Degas Estate, Vente d’Estampes, no. 21. It was acquired in 1974 under the terms of the Felton Bequest from P. & D. Colnaghi & Co. Ltd., London. Previously in the collection of D. David-Weill (Paris), it is listed as no. 222 in the checklist by E. P. Janis, ‘Degas Monotypes – A Critical Study’, Fogg Art Museum 1968, the standard reference on the subject from which all unacknowledged quotations in this article are taken.
1 Quoted in A. Scharf, ‘Painting, Photography and the Image of Movement’, Burlington Magazine May 1962, p. 190.
Madame Cardinal scolding an admirer now known in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria as The one who looked around most avidly was the Marquis Cavalcanti.