A PICTURE THAT IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS
about 1886, by Edgar Degas
The National Gallery, London WC2
The diminutive figure of Hélène Rouart, locked into this large painting by the bars of the vast chair and the rectangles of her father’s art collection, surely make her into a possession. We are complicit in this reading of this picture, borrowing the artist’s infamously misogynistic gaze and viewing her as an object in a museum. Perhaps Degas intended to paint her as another picture not a person.
The warm colours in the painting don’t quite reach her left hand or most of her face and their cold green tints limit her pretension to be the living element in this painting. Her father, and indeed the artist, seem to inhabit the painting more than she, the putative subject, does.
These patriarchal overtones that appear to resonate throughout this painting, are perhaps made more ambiguous by the apparent freedom of her left arm and by the absence of her father and the anthropomorphic curves of his empty chair. However, the artist’s knowledge that his sitter is engaged to be married might be key, particularly as Degas kept the painting.
When, as an art student, I was required to pick a painting in the National Gallery to transcribe, I chose this one, because of its masterful colour palette. I painted it on a large scale and substituted a self-portrait in her place, failing to achieve any political or sociological rebalancing, unable to even balance my transcription.
Paradoxically, perhaps, but unsurprisingly, having had an imagined painting lesson in composition, drawing and a cleverly muted palette, I just learnt that Degas was a technical master.
Jonathan Ellis, 2015
Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.
A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, and some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people.
The National Gallery description:
The sitter in this portrait was the daughter of Degas’s lifelong friend, the industrialist and collector Henri Rouart. She is shown in the family house surrounded by paintings and objects from her father’s collection.
Originally Hélène’s mother was to be included in the painting, but she was omitted, perhaps because of ill-health.
Degas did not finish this painting, and it was never given to the Rouart family. It was found in the studio at his death.
Jonathan Jones has written:
Artist: Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas (1834-1917), an avant-garde artist obsessed with academic traditions; an intensely erotic painter and sculptor of women’s bodies who was celibate; a modern man who was an extreme French nationalist and anti-Semite; and the most fascinating Impressionist after Manet.
Subject: Hélène Rouart, only daughter of Degas’s friend, the rich painter and collector (and fellow right-winger) Henri Rouart.
Distinguishing features: This is a strange portrait. It is supposed to be of Hélène Rouart, but she is utterly overwhelmed by signs of her father. She stands in his study surrounded by his art collection, posing behind his chair, which is colossal compared with her, as if behind a restraining fence. She is diminished by the imagined presence of her father, who might be just outside the room – though actually he was travelling in Venice when this was painted.
Hélène has a pasty complexion, her hair is flattened, her dress encases her. She lists like a passenger on a swaying deck. This is the ailing, unhappy daughter of a 19th-century patriarch, so subjugated to the fetishised, massive presence of her father – images of his taste, his wealth – that she seems half-dead. To her left is a landscape of Naples by Corot, and lower down a drawing by Millet, and she is juxtaposed with them as another of her father’s treasures. To her right is the glass case containing her father’s collection of Egyptian funerary artefacts. She too is mummified and entombed in this room. Degas makes Hélène show the ringless fingers of her left hand. The only man in her life, this painting says in a brutal way, is her father.
Degas and women is a subject that’s hard to get to the bottom of. There’s a violence to this painting, but perhaps also an empathy. Degas expressed misogynist sentiments, yet was friends with the painter Berthe Morisot …
It is unbelievably luxurious: Degas kept repainting and retouching it over many years, making the reds ever richer, the texture more opulent. The sexuality that is absent from Hélène’s demeanour becomes the glint of silver on the mummies’ vitrine, the luxury of a Chinese silk hanging. The painting is suspenseful: possibilities, unacknowledged desires, circulate in its tense space, between the painter, the young woman and her father.
Hélène Rouart married and left home soon after posing for Degas.
Quentin Blake says:
There’s a wonderful sense of balance between the painter and the draughtsman at work; everything impressively but delicately held in check by a sort of formal geometry, and, not uncommon with Degas, the discreet presence of works of art of other periods. Whatever his reputation as a misogynist, Degas’ portraits of women must surely be among the most intelligent—the most acknowledging of their individual identity—of the 19th century
John McEwen comments:
No surprise that Quentin Blake selects Degas, who said all he wished for his funeral oration was: ‘He greatly loved drawing.’
… This is one of several likenesses of the [Rouart] family, which occupied Degas into the 20th century and form part of his final portrait cycle. He fussed away at this large painting for over a decade … That she is minimised by the alpha-male chair, and dutifully positioned, only emphasise that the portrait is almost as much of him as her. Even her arms might be tenderly resting on his shoulder. Nonetheless, she was already engaged— Degas left out the ring—and duly married. Degas disliked art analysis: ‘Yesterday I dined at the Rouarts. There were his sons and some young people—all talking art. I blew up. What interests me is work, business, the army.’
Jonathan Jones writes on art for the Guardian and was on the jury for the 2009 Turner prize.
*His article was published in The Guardian as Portrait of the Week on Saturday June 24, 2000
Quentin Blake is an artist, exhibition curator and illustrator, well known for his collaboration with Roald Dahl
John McEwen is an art critic.
**This article was first published in Country Life, May 27, 2009