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Art Review: 'Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist' at Frick Art Museum

| Wednesday, June 25, 2014, 9:14 p.m.
'The Two Trees' by Edgar Degas
'Plough Horse' by Edgar Degas
'Studies of Head and Arms' by Edgar Degas
'Achille Degas' by Edgar Degas
'Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Paintings Gallery' by Edgar Degas
'Portrait of James Abbott McNeill Whistler' by Mortimer Menpes

From his ballerinas, perfect en pointe, to his horse-racing scenes so full of life and energy, Edgar Degas (1834-1917) is one of the most recognizable names associated with the French impressionists.

So it is that the exhibit “Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist — Works on Paper by the Artist and His Circle,” which opens this weekend at the Frick Art Museum in Point Breeze, is already gaining a lot of attention.

“We already have over 450 reservations for the opening reception,” says Frick spokesman Greg Langel.

Featuring more than 100 works on paper, the exhibit is built around a core group of 55 works by Degas.

Collected mostly in the 1970s and '80s when works on paper like this were much more affordable, they are all from the collection of Robert Flynn Johnson, curator emeritus of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Seen together, they show what was possible for a knowledgeable collector with limited funds to buy for relatively little money, says Sarah Hall, director of curatorial affairs at the Frick Art Museum.

“You can tell that this is a very personal collection of Robert Flynn Johnson, and that together, the works are all very meaningful to him,” Hall says.

The earliest Degas drawing on view is dated November 1853. Drawn before the artist turned 20, it depicts his younger brother Achille in relaxed repose, his arm dangling over the back of a chair. While Achille's facial features aren't as highly detailed as the remainder of the drawing, the cavalier quality of his pose is an early indication of the pending impressionist movement.

Several more early drawings abound, and most are copies of drawings Degas found in the Louvre. “He voraciously copied things,” Hall says. “He claimed to have copied every Old Master in the Louvre. By 1860, he copied over 700 drawings.”

Such studied mastery of the rendering of muscle and bone becomes evident in, of all things, the drawing “Plough Horse” from the early 1860s. Here, the undulating ripples of flesh and bone appear as if pulsing below their sleek horsehair covering.

An unfinished drawing that fades out to the horse's hooves, Hall says of it, “You get a sense of the absolute immediacy of him being outside, observing and sketching.

“He did so many life studies, watching and observing and sketching, that then when he wanted to work in his studio, he understood the animal very thoroughly, he had his own visual references, he could create his own compositions in the studio.”

Several monotypes from 1870s are real standouts. One-of-a-kind prints, monotypes involve applying ink directly to an otherwise untouched plate and printing immediately.

Here, works like “Les Deux Arbes” (ca. 1876) indicate the immediacy of the process.

“This was the first piece by Degas that Robert Flynn Johnson bought,” Hall says.

“It's not what most people would think of at all when they think of Degas,” she says. “It's very spontaneous, atmospheric, very post-impressionist in its feeling, if anything. He would often completely ink a plate and use his fingers to do the smearing and removal of ink, oftentimes smearing it. It was a really visceral, sort of physical thing for him, making monoprints, and he really enjoyed it.”

Several etchings also are on display. Pittsburghers will no doubt take delight in two featuring North Side-born Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, one in the Etruscan gallery, one in the paintings gallery.

Having each the slim, stylish silhouette of Cassatt, looking at art with her back arched and leaning on a parasol, the careful observer will notice her sister Lydia, hunched over a guidebook in each.

Johnson's voracious appetite for prints by friends of Degas gives added depth and interest to his collection, and Hall has interspersed a few throughout the exhibit, such as three etchings by Edouard Manet, an early advocate of impressionism.

The remaining works are relegated to the final of three galleries, where visitors will find a powerful self-portrait etching by artist Marcellin Desboutin, a cartoon by Honore Daumier, a photograph by Cecil Beaton of the house in which Degas lived while in New Orleans as well as several portraits of such well-known contemporaries as James McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt and Degas himself by such artists as Pierre-Georges Jeanniot, Joseph Glodyne and caricaturist David Levine.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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