Rembrandt and Degas: Two Young Artists, at the Clark Art Institute

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Edgar Degas, Self-Portrait, c. 1857–1858, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 26 x 19.1 cm, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown 1955.544
Edgar Degas, Self-Portrait, c. 1857–1858, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 26 x 19.1 cm, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown 1955.544

Sponsored jointly by the Clark Art Institute and the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, this small exhibition of prints and paintings by Rembrandt and Degas opens with Degas’ assertion that “What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters.”

One of the marvelous things Degas learned from them is that new art need not always look like old art, that the great masters often were consummate experimenters developing entirely new kinds of imagery. Indeed Degas is well-known for his pastels of dancers, which often involve mark-making and composing methods that veer far away from the academic traditions of his early training.

This new show reveals a young Degas at a time of transition between traditions (French Academic versus Dutch Realist), revealing much about how Degas navigated the two. It’s a lovely, outstanding small show.

The show is worth a visit if for no other reason than to see four small self-portrait paintings that are astonishingly beautiful, precise, reserved in their use of color and radical in their use of light.

Two are by Rembrandt, about 6” x 6” each, and two by Degas, one similarly sized and another about twice larger. Symphonic orchestrations of every color these are not. To the contrary, they are like subtle sextets mixed perhaps from umber, black, red, yellow, maybe a bit of earthy green, and white. The curatorial choices of wall color and lighting certainly helped this color grouping sing with clarity.

This in turn brings out the intensity of the lighting schema in each painting, which serves to hide a young Rembrandt’s face and quiet his glare. He seems intense, a bit whimsical, leaning over a little and maybe just about ready to giggle. And if his etchings and engravings throughout the show are any indication then likely he did consider his expression, his pose, and composition very carefully throughout these early self-portraits.

Degas allows us a bit more light to see the face, and he sits upright. He left a considerable portion of the lower left corner of the Clark’s smaller painting unfinished, perhaps as if to reveal a sense of being a work-in-progress — what better or more honest statement can one make in a self-portrait? I can almost hear him as a youth whisper “I’m not done yet.”

For me, as a painter, I like to see Degas’s technical process revealed. And in that corner, one can identify the varying stages of layering often taught in his time, from toning of the canvas, to initial drawing, wash, and blocking, with full detail reserved for the more psychologically important visage. I view the unfinished corner as a kind of secret code shared among painters, a way of saying that art is borne of the process, of learning along the way.

Among the oldest and most reliable ways to learn drawing and painting is to copy the artworks of noted artists. In the atelier and academy traditions of Europe, young artists often did rigorous studies of specialty prints and paintings intended for student’s study.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait as a Young Man, c. 1628–29   Oil on panel, 22.6 x 18.7 cm Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait as a Young Man, c. 1628–29 Oil on panel, 22.6 x 18.7 cm Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Like Degas, however, the artist must always be aware that restating the facts (what an artwork looks like and getting your own copy of it to look alike) is only one aspect of creating an image. Mimesis alone does not art make. But it’s a good starting point and helps one gain accuracy and precision of form, proportion, shading, edge, color. Still, the larger goal of copywork is to make one’s own artistry all that more intensive.  We can throughout the exhibit see more than Degas’ interest in copying some of Rembrandt’s works. Indeed we get a rare peek at Degas’ choices, selections, changes of composition or design from study to study — it’s a rare opportunity to get a sense of the behind-the-scenes work on which serious artists rely.

The topic of copywork has been on my mind because this last semester my advanced drawing students and I studied a variety of drawing methods and techniques from artists of the past. We all copied from Rembrandt, Prud’hon and Rubens. And some students selected additional artists like Leonardo, Holbein, Dürer, and Schongauer as their exemplars. Such copywork today in visual art is rather unusual, whereas seeking expression through originality is more typical. But I’m convinced after many years of teaching art that actually there’s no faster and no better way to help students discover what it means to gain technical skill than to copy from famous artworks of the past. Fortunately there’s so many fantastic artists and artworks of the past that every student probably can find someone or some image that they relate to so closely that the effort of copywork relates well to one’s own deep motivations to create.

In response to Degas and Rembrandt, I also can’t help but think of an art show from the late 80s, at The Drawing Center (NY), and the subject of the book Creative Copies: Interpretive Drawings from Michelangelo to Picasso by Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann (1988, The Drawing Center / Sotheby’s Publications). This old show was more about many artists’ reactions to other artists’ works, whereas Rembrandt and Degas is a much closer, more intimate demonstration of one artist’s in-depth visual study of another.

For those wanting more information, there are also a variety of excellent articles online about the Rembrandt and Degas show, including notes from Paul Richardson (Assistant Exhibitions Manager), from Sarah Lees (Associate Curator of European Art), and a good preview that shows many of the artworks. The exhibition is open through February 5th, 2012.

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