Many consider Edgar Degas an Impressionist artist — a painter of modern life. That he was, though different than some of his contemporaries. He called himself a “Realist.” Rather than painting plein air landscapes, using color, light and shade to capture fleeting moments, as Monet and other Impressionists famously did, Degas captured everyday movements in the theater, at the ballet or the cafés he frequented. It is a distinction made clear at the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition, “Degas: At the Track, On the Stage.”
Degas was interested in human form. So bathing scenes depicting a woman getting in or out of a bathtub, for example, were common, as were ballet and racetrack subjects. In fact, Degas alone produced some 1,500 images of ballet dancers. Given his interest in automatic and unconscious movement, Degas wanted to capture a figure caught off guard or unaware of being looked at.
The paintings and sculptures that fill this intimate, one-gallery show reflect the Realist artist Degas saw himself as. Ballet dancers and scenes at the racetrack are the two main subjects in this exhibition, as the title alludes to. There is one piece, however, that visitors immediately flock to. It’s the one that brought Degas much criticism, but now is highly regarded: “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.” This piece alone steals the show.
In part this is because of the controversial history that accompanies it. Although “Little Dancer” is posed, her attributes are strikingly real — perhaps too real for viewers in 1881. Critics condemned the sculpture for the ballerina’s thin, unadorned and homely features. Far from idealized, this is just an ordinary “working-class” girl, as the National Gallery of Art puts it. With realism as a goal, Degas achieved his aim. At the same time, the sculpture caused so much outrage that Degas did not display the piece again during his lifetime.
But “Little Dancer” is also compelling because visitors see it through a different lens today. Despite the modest dress and humble characteristics, this young ballerina exudes confidence — not an elitist attitude, but poise and self-assurance. She maintains a deliberate, upright pose; her right foot forward with authority; chin held high and eyes facing up. Visitors admire such conviction, which makes this sculpture come alive.
The second notable piece on show is Degas’s painting, “Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey.” It depicts a jockey having fallen from his horse, as other riders speed by. Viewers anticipate the next scene: the young jockey gets trampled by galloping horses from behind. Degas could have captured a glorified moment, say the final stretch of the race when one horse and jockey are declared victors. But he instead captures a grim reality.
“Degas: At the Track, On the Stage” is an enjoyable show for its focus on two repeated subjects in Degas’s oeuvre. Although there are other highly regarded paintings in this show, “Little Dancer” and “Steeplechase” alone make it worth the trip.
“Degas: At the Track, On the Stage” is on show through February 2016.