Mirrors of De Gas. Part I

I remember that when writing about mirrors of Edgar Degas back in January 2012 in my Russian blog, I experienced a few new challenges. One of them was simple the  amount of those: there were just too many of them!

Before that I was mostly writing about one or two mirrors of one master (for instance,  the Arnolfini Portrait by van Eyck, or the Jewelsmith by Peter Cristus). Even those ‘one mirror’ postings required to present at least some biographical facts, a minimal backgrounder information on the social and art contexts, and only then some musements about the mirrors themselves.

With Degas everything has to be multiplied; a lengthy intro into his biography and a detailed analysis of the total oeuvre seems to be a must. Yet this is exactly what I always wanted to avoid in my postings for the blog! Partly because it’s usually a very large task itself, but mostly because I’d rather focus on the mirror side, rather than on  copy-pasting basic wikipedia data.

My congeries about Degas’s mirrors was an attempt to achieve such a balance; see how ti goes, an bear in mind, this posting is only about a third of the total story!

What are the major memes about Edgar Degas we currently have in mind? (‘we’ here refers to a vague concept of the ‘public opinion’, a set of ideas and beliefs shared by relatively educated and knowledgeable, yet not fully proficient in (art) history or art critique an audience).

Degas is seen by many as:

a) the singer of feminine beauty and grace (“Oh, just look at his dancers!“);
b) the artist portraying movement better than anyone else; and
c) the master of impressionism.

And yes, of course

d) the commander of light (“His works are flooded with light!”)

These memes are widely present in public opinion, and often migrate up to more official circles too (museums/catalogs/books). In both cases l don’t have the exact figures, but the evidences are not hard to find in various online forums where people endlessly talk about the beautiful “blue butterflies” of Degas (see also the collage above).

The Google Image Search provides an approximation of the ‘public opinion’ these days;  this is how people’s ‘The Very Top of Degas’ looks like:

About half of these images are indeed ballerinas, and quite a few of them are the women at their toilettes. Some of these images depict mirrors too (but in this selection all these ‘mirror images’ are depicting the ballet scenes).

It is therefore tempting to assume that the ‘mirrors’ of Degas reflect the same set of themes, that is of “beauty”, “femininity” and “exquisite grace.”

To reveal the ‘truth’, or rather a more complicated story of the Degas’ mirrors, I have to make at least a short excursus into his biography (despite all my reservations I wrote above).

Let’s start slightly psychoanalytically, from the early childhood memories; in his case we have to start even earlier.

Edgar Degas was the first of the five children of Augustin De Gas, a wealthy banker of aristocratic origin, who in turn was also the eldest son in the family of René-Hilaire De Gas, Degas grandfather. The latter was an aristocrat to the very backbone; as such, he despised the plebs, cannot accept the revolution, and at some point had to flee from France to Italy, fearing prosecution by the ‘plebeian revolutionaries’ (this is the reason why Degas had quite a few relatives in Italy). Interesting enough, his grandfather married some Jeanne-Aurora Frappa from New Orleans, an American of French origin.

It is interesting also because the father of Degas would later also marry to an American of French origin, and also from New Orleans, Marie Célestine Musson. She was a  daughter of Germain Musson, French huguenot who fled in 1810 from France to New Orleans, where he made a fortune trading in cotton, and Marie Céleste Désirée Rillieux who was Creole (a mix of French and black bloods).

We know that Marie Céleste Désirée, the grand mother of Degas died very young, when she was only 25 years old – yet she managed to give birth to five children by then. Soon after her sudden death in 1819, Germain Musson decides to return to Paris, together with all their children – the youngest of whom was Marie Célestine, named after her mother. She was only five years old when they came to France.

I’m not sure, but most likely it’s their New Orléans connection that somehow helped them to cross the path with Degas’s grandfather, René-Hilaire De Gas. In 1832  Augustin De Gas married Marie Célestine Musson, who was only 18 years old then; fter two years, their first son Edgar was born.

In 1847, when Edgar was only 13 years old, his mother suddenly dies;  she was 33, only a few years older that her own mother (the grandmother of Degas). His father never married again, and instead brought up all their children himself (and Edgar, the oldest, since his early years was also under the patronage of his grandfather).

This is portrait of his grandfather who Degas painted in 1857.

Portrait of Hilaire Degas, Grandfather of the Artist (1857)

Perhaps all these details are not so immediately relevant to the ‘mirror’ part of the story, yet they can help us to understand some later moves in his life (for example, I didn’t know that he had these American roots in the heritage).

These details can also help to understand why Degas is a popular hero (or should I say, a victim?) of various psychoanalytically inclined (art) critics who readily identify a whole origami of various neurotic symptoms in Degas. This includes, among others, the fear of women, and the fear of any close, intimate relationship, authoritarianism, sociopathy and alleged inferiority complex (and its gigantic  compensation – expressed, for example, in Degas’ despising and misanthropic attitude toward all people, and toward women in particularly, that the painter was notoriously known for).

For psychoanalysts this all fits nicely to their conventional framework; for those of us who are less lucky and don’t have an encompassing framework explaining everybody and everything all these facts – as well as opinions about them – just further complicate (or complexify?) already difficult task of understanding the works by the painter.

As it’s stated in many biographies, Degas “always loved to draw”. Of course, his father (and especially his grandfather) considered the path of professional artist as silly, stupid even, and prepared Edgar for a decent career, such as law, finance or politics. On the other hand, they wouldn’t deprive him of financial support, which mean that he could explore the artistic carrer with much worrying about fees for his studies, or potential financial sustainability of his choice (which was a very different situation compared to the majority of other artists of that time).

When he was 18, Degas turned his room at home in a studio, and signed as a ‘copyist’ with the Louvre. His first works were mere copies of the old masters (a fairly typical path) in Paris, and then in Italy, where he went for a “cultural study tour”, a move also widely practiced among his peers. Although in his case it too much longer, he spent in Italy almost three three years.

Here are the examples of his early studies:

Landscape with distant town (1860)

View of Naples (1958)

The predominant style in fine art of in those days was Academicism, aimed at production of (hyper)realistic, (over)beautified and ‘politically correct’ paintings (the later most often meant classicism, but could also be national patriotism. This style assumed a lengthy period of apprenticeship, and a strict abidance of the established traditions.

It is not very fair to make any conclusions on a base of a few early works (student works, as we would say today). I obviously saw many more examples of Degas’ earlier sketches, but still my analysis is inevitably incomplete and perhaps biased. Yet I would like to put it forward, even in a form of stub.

I think Degas had a very peculiar form of vision impairment (or even broader, perception impairment), that didn’t allow him to see the depth of the space (and therefore, depict it in his paintings).

The works of Degas are unbelievably, bizarrely flat – they look like the photographs taken with a with minimal DoF, Depth of Field. He tries, very hardly, to use all sorts of trick and tools to construct this depth and perspective (perhaps more due to the ‘social pressure’), and yet at the end his works still resemble 2D carpet rather than 3D room; they are more Google Map, than Google Earth.

When I start thinking in this direction, I didn’t know that Degas indeed had a vision impairment, which strongly developed in this later years, and that made his nearly blind by the end of his life!

Today Degas would be diagnosed with retinopathy, “an (unspecified) damage of the retina of the eye”. This may sound solid enough, but in reality we don’t quite know what causes this conditions (or rather we know that the reason could be multiple, including some genetic propensity).

Himself, Degas believed that his problems started after he got frozen few times during a short service in army (he was mobilized during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-1871, when he was already 35 + years old). Soon after these episodes his vision started to deteriorate, to the extent that he couldn’t bear average day light, considering it very bright. For example, unlike most artists, Degas did not work en plein air, in the open air, and even in his studio the curtains were closed closed and the light dimmed.

I think he had these issues earlier and the war (and the cold nights he had served on duty) only aggravated the conditions.

Perhaps the issue is not only in the perception of the depth of field, or constructing perspective in the painting; more generally, it’s about a visual gestalt, the processes of building the whole from the part.

I could briefly through my own case here.

I had a minor eye injury during my school years, somebody had through a teddybear that hit my eye. This eye’s vision deteriorated, not much but bad enough to have a a certain discomforting feeling. I remember this sensation that I see ‘too much’, that there are too many of too bright things around. I even had to create a certain ticks to protect myself, like half-closing my eye by a palm, or making some sort of spyglass out of my fingers, to minimize the view-field.

My vision recovered after a while, at least I don’t notice anything special myself, but if I look at the pictures I am taking (e.g., in for me aman_geld project, I see the same tendency, ‘to cut the crap’, so to speak, to leave as many unnecessary details out, to crop as tightly as possible, and zoom in to the scene to the extent that it becomes nearly flat.  Do I see the world in this way? or only use these tools when constricting my representations?  Not sure, an interesting question, but I am afraid it will leave me too far from the core subject, the mirrors.

Finally, the mirrors.


We see the very first mirror of Edgar Degas in his painting known as The Bellelli Family. It’s a group portrait of the family of his aunt, Laura De Gas who married Italian baron Gennaro Bellelli. Degas stayed with with in 1858.

He made a few preliminary studies for this work, some of them are drawings and some, pastels.

And this the completed work, currently on display in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

The Bellelli Family (1859)

As often happes with his early paintings, Degas worked on this one for a long time. He started it in Italy, brought in Paris and painted and repainted for a few months there. There is a fairly informative article about this masterpiece on wikipedia that tells the basic facts: who’s and what’s painted here, and sometimes why (for instance the portrait on a wall behind Laura De Gas is of her father who died not long ago; that’s why she wears black).

And there is a mirror, too, over a mantlepiece:

Contemporary critics inscribe a large amount of symbolisms into this painting (in addition to the wiki-article, see also a short description on the Google Art page).  For example, the fact that the husband is sitting near the mirror, and ‘turns his back’ to the painter suppose to mean that their relationships were strain.

I wrote a few stories about late Middle Age/early Renaissance mirrors, when a certain ‘mirror symbolism’ was at play, and I was trying to detect its presence.  However, Degas’ mirrors had been painted centuries later (and also after hundres of many other ‘art mirror works’.  In the middle of XIX century, and in these circles mirrors did have any ‘symbolic’ meaning, and in particularly negative one. They did, of course, had some meaning, for example, of status, or of taste.

Production of the mirrors of such quality (flat, large) was already a well-developed industry in Europe by the mid-XIX century. The mirrors were still fairly expensive, and the large ones were affordable only to wealthy families — like the Bellelli. The mirrors like that were not used as looking glasses, but rather as an interior element, to enhance the splendor of the room. Sometimes they had a pair of candles or candelabrums, installed either at the frame or standing on the mantelpiece (like in this case).

I once read a comparison of this painting with the Velázquez’ Las Meninas; mostly because of the set of the allegedly similar features (girls/shirts/dogs – they all turn to turn fairly latent) – but also because of the mirror in both paintings.

There is nothing common between these two works, of course, not only because of the very different meaning of the mirrors, but also because of the spatial atmosphere. I had a chance to see this painting in Paris, somewhat unexpectedly; they changed the location of this work in the Musée d’Orsay, so I literally bumped into in it one of the halls. It’s shockingly flat, there is not feeling of depth at all; compare that with Las Meninas that many people describe as inviting to walk into.

What if Degas tried to use this mirror to create this very depth? Frankly, I doubt, and if he did, he failed. The mirror looks like yet another (flat) painting, it somehow misses all the quality of the ‘depth enhancer’ in this painting. Even the small opening on the left side, showing another room, works better.

Not surpassing, the painting’s reception was very cold. It was critiqued for its composition, a weird atmosphere, and simply for being boringness. It stayed with Degas all his life, and was never exhibited (except apparently unsuccessful attempt at the Salon in 1867).

After his return from Italy Degas settled in Paris and began to paint various allegorical scenes, both classical and Biblical, which was a fairly standard choice for the academic circles. None of them any mirrors, but I will post a few examples anyway, even if to support some later writings about the mirrors and nudes.

This is his Young Spartans Exercising (1861), not only historically flawed interpretation (but that’s ok, this is what they believed in those days), but also a very weak work, both composition- and anatomy-wise.

The earlier studies for this work:

There are records in his diaries showing he was intrigued by the fact that boys and girls exercised together in Sparta, allegedly all naked. Worth remembering that Degas was 27 years old by then; not married (he never will be) and evidently not dating anyone.

He never actually finished this work.

The subjects of his other earlier works were equally controversial. Take, for example, The Daughter of Jephtha (1859):

This painting was alos never completed, and it’s again a poorly constructed scene, helplessly missing any perspective. Similar to some other earlier works by Degas, this is a pile of disjoined boides, arbitrarily place over the canvas.

But it’s also a very controversial subject. According to the Book of Judges, Jephthah pledged to sacrifice his own daughter in case of a certain victory. And he won, and he did (although there is alternative, a  bit less cruel version, that he obliged his daughter to remain innocent (?) in case of his victory. Lots of food for thoughts for psychoanalysts.

And yet another work, so called War in the Middle Ages (1865)

Even despite it follows a certain line of the ‘classicism’, the paintings obviously breaks its major rules: it’s weirdly composed and looks misbalanced, it crops the figures in a strange way. It supposes to be an alive, tragic scene, yet it looks like everything is frozen – and these are not my thought, that’s the paraphrased quotes from the critical review of that time. Funny enough, there was an exhibition held recently in London where the very same works had been presented as the examples of artworks depicting ‘human body in movement’.  The power of the brand is limitless.

I mentioned, few times already, that the reception of the earlier works by Degas was  relatively cold, if not negative, both in terms of craft and the subject matters. Yet himself Degas was absolutely convinced in his talents, especially in his abilities as draftsman.

This is our-confident Degas in 1863; he’s 29 on this self-portrait.

Degas started to take commissioned works, both portraits and various scenes (for examples, his famous hippodrome paintings. he always works very slowly, painfully slowly even. He is not dependent on his works as a source of income, and could be very irascible with the clients wondering about the completion dates or complaining about the quality. Irritability will become his most known trait with time.

Below are a few works of this period (and I selected only those where he also painted mirrors).

2 & 3

Portrait of Edmondo and Thérèse Morbilli, unfinished (1865)

Interior with Two People, unfinished (1868)

In both cases mirror play a very similar role to the one in the Bellelli Portrait; they are merely elements of the interior, and in this cases they don’t even reflect much on the paintings  if at all. The are sings of status, wealth and taste. It seems, for example, that in the second work it was more important to show the rich, decorated frame of the round mirror, that the mirror itself.

We see a similar approach in a few individual portrats:

4, 5, 6

Portrait of Josephine Gaujelin (1868)     &             Portrait of Victoria Dubourg (1866)

Madame Théodore Gobillard, born Yves Morisot (1869)

In the case of the latter work, of Yves Morisot, sister of Berthe Morisot, I am not even sure that it’s a mirror; it could well be just another painting. But in any case, this wouldn’t be much different from other similar ‘mirrors’.


The seventh mirror of Degas is in many ways very similar to all the previous ones (it’s also merely a social marker), yet the context of the work is quite different.

The official title of the painting (1868) is fairly neutral (Interior, or Intérieur in French), although there also much stronger and dramatic interpretations Le Viol (The Rape).

The scene looks pretty dramatic (melodramatic, event); the latter was the major source of initial criticism, since critics considered the scene too staged.

A half-dressed woman sits at a small table, but she is turned our of us, we hardly see her face – in tears, perhaps? A man, standing next to the wall, looking vacantly into space. It’s not quite clear what’s going here.

They are obviously not a married couple: his suite looks pretty expensive, and her nightgown and other accessories are fairly humble. Also, this doesn’t look like their joint bedroom, the bed is for one.

A jealous scene ? The last meeting when he announced the break?

Another guess was that we see a room in a brothel; it was noticed that the prostitutes in Paris used similar cases where they kept a change of clothes, a vial of cheap perfume, a comb (by the way, in this case somewhere in this box there could be yet another mirror, a small hand-held one, the second in this picture).

Relatively recently, in the 1970-s, it was suggested that Degas made a few illustrations for the novel by Émile Zola Thérèse Raquin, published in 1867, and that one of these illustrations was later transformed in the painting  This seems to plausible, at least it explains a very melodramatic settings of the scene.

I will post a short excerpt from the novel’s review:

“Eventually, Thérèse and Laurent find life together intolerable and plot to kill each other. At the climax of the novel, the two are about to kill one another when each of them realizes the plans of the other. They each then break down sobbing and reflect upon their miserable lives. After having embraced one last time, they each commit suicide by taking poison.”

Not a very Hollywood end.

But back to the mirror: what’s its role in the painting?

Here again the mirror is a marker of the social status (in this case, a sign of a poor room, in a brothel perhaps). The mirror’s frame is not only very basic, but also of poor taste.

To conclude this first chapter, we see that in the beginning of his carrer Degas used mirrors merely as interior details; we rarely see the reflected objects, and their frames often are more important than the sufaces.

It will change soon, in the times of Ballets, and Basins, but these are another stories.


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