Edgar DEGAS
Portrait of a woman (c. 1876-1880)

The recent loan of Edgar Degas’s Portrait of a woman to the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, on the occasion of the exhibition Degas: Master of French Art (12 December 2008 – 22 March 2009) invited reconsideration of this enigmatic painting.

The intrinsic merits of Portrait of a woman (fig. 1) are hard to appreciate due to the unfortunate fact that the ghostly impressions of another composition are showing through, as a dark stain across the sitter’s face, to disfigure this engaging portrait. On the surface of this double-layered work, we see a thinly and freely painted image of a plumpish woman in a black dress and bonnet. The unidentified sitter leans forward, poised on the brink of conversation, her eyes alive with interest. The concentration with which she listens to an off-stage interlocutor has been captured with deft, quickly applied brushstrokes that accord with the artist’s painting style of the late 1870s.1The date of 1876–80 was first proposed by P. A. Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, Arts et Métiers Graphiques, Paris, 1946, vol. 2, no. 415. Beneath this portrait, however, and running in the opposite direction, lies a second painting, also a portrait, which Degas abandoned at some stage, recycling that canvas later when creating the present work. It is the shoulders of this second portrait that are showing through the top layer of paint to form the strong diagonal lines radiating out from the present sitter’s black bonnet to the top corners of the canvas. X-radiograph photography reveals that the subject of the earlier portrait was ‘a young woman in three-quarter view to the right, her hair pulled back in a bun’ (fig. 2).2 Sonia Dean, European Painting of the 19th and Early 20th Centuries in the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1995, p. 45. The date of 1876–80 was first proposed by P. A. Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, Arts et Métiers Graphiques, Paris, 1946, vol. 2, no. 415. Infrared photography of the canvas further shows that this first portrait was finely and delicately modelled, reminiscent of Degas’s classical style of around 1860 when he was working in veneration of the old masters (fig. 3). While the slightly elongated ear and general features of the over-painted subject are reminiscent of a female portrait executed by Degas in Rome towards the end of the 1850s, exact identification of the earlier sitter still eludes us.3 Portrait de jeune femme (Mme Millaudon), 1857–59, See Lemoisne, vol. 2, no. 44.

On his very first visit to Europe in 1905, to acquire works for the National Gallery of Victoria with funds from the newly granted Felton Bequest, director Bernard Hall had complained of how the prices for Degas were already prohibitive.4  Bernard Hall to the chairman of the National Gallery Committee, 27 July 1905, quoted in John Poynter, Mr Felton’s Bequests, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2003, p. 260. Unjustifiable expense became an excuse for the Felton trustees’ subsequent rejection of supposedly overpriced Degas paintings in the years to come. This fate befell, notably, a Foyer de la danse in 1913, and a Répétition de danse in 1926.5 Poynter, pp. 296–7, 351–2. When the Gallery’s UK-based Felton adviser Sir Sydney Cockerell (then director of the Fitzwilliam Museum) recommended two Degas paintings for purchase from the Parisian dealer Paul Rosenberg in March 1937, it was the less expensive work, Portrait of a woman, offered for £2275, that the NGV director and the Felton trustees preferred over a larger, pricier portrait of Mme Camus (£6500). The director, J. S. MacDonald, a man of conservative and classical taste, felt that Mme Camus, 1869–70, was ‘not a typical Degas … It looks as though Degas had decided not to go on with [it] through dissatisfaction with it’.6 J. S. MacDonald, memorandum to the Felton Bequests’ Committee, 9 Apr. 1937, NGV archives. Mme Camus was sold to Chester Dale in 1938, and subsequently gifted by him to the National Gallery, Washington, in 1963. By 1937 two Courbets, three Manets, a Monet, two Pissarros and a Sisley already graced the Gallery’s walls, and the absence of a Degas from the NGV’s growing collection of modern French paintings had become a definite embarrassment. Portrait of a woman came from the distinguished collection of Dikran Kelekian, a New York-based Armenian dealer in Islamic art and passionate supporter of modern European and American painting; it had formed part of the landmark sale of Kelekian’s modernist collections that took place in New York in January 1922. While Cockerell argued that the painting was ‘a fine and very living portrait by this great artist’, MacDonald, assessing the work on the basis of a black and white photograph that Cockerell had mailed across from London, delivered a more ambiguous judgement on the painting:

If the discolouration on the face of the subject is [only] due to photography (yellow photo-graphing mark or some such thing) this painting should be well worth acquiring. It is not an especially good Degas, but they are almost impossible to come by. It is by a very great artist and has sufficient of him in it to make it desirable.7 Sydney Cockerell, Felton Bequest Report on Works of Art, 22 Mar. 1937, NGV archives; MacDonald, memorandum to the Felton Bequests’ Committee, 9 Apr. 1937, NGV archives.

One art historian has rightly noted that ‘although MacDonald had noticed the discolouration on the woman’s face in the photograph [of Portrait of a woman], he had not been aware of its significance’.8 Betty Snowden, Policies, Personalities and Politics: Modern French Art and the National Gallery of Victoria 1860–1940, PhD dissertation, University of New South Wales, Sydney, 2004, vol. 1, p. 126. Press photographs of the painting taken on its arrival in Melbourne in August 1937 show clearly that the level of visual disturbance caused by the competing and inverted portraits layered within the picture’s paint surface was already considerable.9 See, for example, the photograph of the painting in its frame, reproduced in the Sun, 3 Aug. 1937. MacDonald’s reaction to this fact is not known, leaving us to conjecture whether he might perhaps have retracted his recommendation of the painting had he had the opportunity to inspect the work himself at first-hand prior to purchase.

Along with other recent Felton Bequest purchases, Portrait of a woman was unveiled to the Australian public on 6 August 1937. Its reception in the local press was mixed. The bleed-through of the earlier portrait across the face of the sitter imaged in the second painting, although not properly understood at the time, prompted some discussion of the picture’s tonalities overall. The Argus found the work ‘bravely drawn and painted’, although the portrait’s ‘honey-coloured and brown hues make it thoroughly unrealistic as far as flesh is concerned’.10‘Felton Bequest purchases’, The Argus, 10 Aug. 1937. Leading modernist painter George Bell, writing for the Sun, considered Portrait of a woman to be ‘dignified and full of charm’. Finding beauty in the strange colouration of the subject’s face, he thought that the work ‘has been painted on a black ground, which accounts for the lovely grey quality of the flesh tones’. And in a prescient foreshadowing of the manner in which the upper layer of this painting has become more translucent over the past six decades, he noted that ‘the black ground will also be responsible for a continued darkening of the picture in the future’.11George Bell, ‘New works big gain to gallery’, The Sun, 9 Aug. 1937.

But the Age wrote caustically that the painting ‘does not in any way represent an artist who was one of the foremost of the French Impressionist group … nor does it justify the price paid for it’.12 National Gallery purchases’, The Age, 7 Aug. 1937. Basil Burdett, art critic for the Herald, tried to like the work, arguing that it was ‘impressive in some ways’ for ‘although it is little more than a thinly-painted block-in, it has a real pictorial quality and appeal in the spacious dignity of the silhouette … against the light green-gold background’. Upon reflection, however, he concluded that Portrait of a woman ‘hardly emerges from the “interesting” class’. For Burdett the painting was ‘a little disappointing’, very much ‘a secondary example and one holding a specialised interest for the painter rather than a general appeal for the public’. Rather than applauding the Gallery for having finally placed a Degas on its walls, he complained that ‘it would have been better … to have waited, if necessary, and to have paid four times as much, or more, to secure an outstanding and more complete example’ of the artist’s work.13Basil Burdett, ‘Notable Felton pictures’, The Herald, 6 Aug. 1937.

The strongest criticism of Melbourne’s new purchase was penned by a member of the public, the twenty-one-year-old William Fielding Wannan, in correspondence with the Argus. Wannan found it ‘deplorable that our National Gallery, despite its Felton Bequest, continues to pay enormous sums for pictures that are either of dubious authorship or inferior examples of a master’s work’; and he branded the Portrait of a woman as ‘the latest addition to our list of costly mediocrities’. In Wannan’s opinion, the painting was ‘neither a typical Degas nor a good portrait, and the fact that it is of interest to students as an example of one phase of the artist’s work does not justify the high price paid for it’. He concluded patriotically that: ‘While we urgently need examples of the work of such influences as Degas and Gauguin, it would be better to purchase fine pictures by our younger Australian artists than waste money on inferior canvases by the acknowledged masters’.14W. Fielding Wannan, ‘Unmasterly “Masters”,’ The Argus, 9 Aug. 1937. Wannan was later to become a prominent writer on Australian folklore, penning the ‘Come in, Spinner’ weekly column for the Australasian Post from 1955 to 1980.

Ted Gott,Senior Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2008)

Notes

1 The date of 1876–80 was first proposed by P. A. Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, Arts et Métiers Graphiques, Paris, 1946, vol. 2, no. 415.

2 Sonia Dean, European Painting of the 19th and Early 20th Centuries in the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1995, p. 45.

3 Portrait de jeune femme (Mme Millaudon), 1857–59, See Lemoisne, vol. 2, no. 44.

4 Bernard Hall to the chairman of the National Gallery Committee, 27 July 1905, quoted in John Poynter, Mr Felton’s Bequests, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2003, p. 260.

5 Poynter, pp. 296–7, 351–2.

6 J. S. MacDonald, memorandum to the Felton Bequests’ Committee, 9 Apr. 1937, NGV archives. Mme Camus was sold to Chester Dale in 1938, and subsequently gifted by him to the National Gallery, Washington, in 1963.

7 Sydney Cockerell, Felton Bequest Report on Works of Art, 22 Mar. 1937, NGV archives; MacDonald, memorandum to the Felton Bequests’ Committee, 9 Apr. 1937, NGV archives.

8 Betty Snowden, Policies, Personalities and Politics: Modern French Art and the National Gallery of Victoria 1860–1940, PhD dissertation, University of New South Wales, Sydney, 2004, vol. 1, p. 126.

9 See, for example, the photograph of the painting in its frame, reproduced in the Sun, 3 Aug. 1937.

10 ‘Felton Bequest purchases’, The Argus, 10 Aug. 1937.

11 George Bell, ‘New works big gain to gallery’, The Sun, 9 Aug. 1937.

12 ‘National Gallery purchases’, The Age, 7 Aug. 1937.

13 Basil Burdett, ‘Notable Felton pictures’, The Herald, 6 Aug. 1937.

14 W. Fielding Wannan, ‘Unmasterly “Masters”,’ The Argus, 9 Aug. 1937. Wannan was later to become a prominent writer on Australian folklore, penning the ‘Come in, Spinner’ weekly column for the Australasian Post from 1955 to 1980.