Degas’ fascination with technical inventions is, perhaps, most clearly seen in his printmaking. In his monotypes, Degas is at his most modern, capturing the spirit of urban life, liberating drawing from tradition, depicting the body in daring ways, and engaging the possibilities of abstraction in unique landscapes. Writing years after Degas’ death, the French poet Stephané Mallarmé remarked that despite already being a “master of drawing” Degas still pursued “delicate lines and movements exquisite or grotesque” in his late monotypes arriving at “a strange new beauty.”
Not by chance, in 2016, the Museum of Modern Art in New York organized the exhibition Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty. The question was how strange that “new beauty” of the monotypes was. Let’s discover it via eight fascinating Degas’ monotypes.
Edgar Degas: The Realist
Edgar Degas, the eldest son of a Parisian banker, was born in 1834. He was educated in the classics, including Latin, Greek, and ancient history, at the Lycée Luis-le Grand in Paris. His father recognized his son’s artistic gifts early and encouraged his drawing by frequently taking him to the museums in Paris. Degas reinforced his formal academic art training by copying Old Masters’ paintings in Italy (1856-1859) and the Louvre.
He also trained in Louis Lamothe’s studio, where he was taught the traditional academic style, which emphasized line and insisted on the crucial importance of draftsmanship. Degas developed a rigorous drawing style and respect for the line that he would maintain throughout his career.
Despite his long association with the impressionists, Degas seems never to have reconciled himself to the label “Impressionist,” preferring to call himself a “Realist” or “Independent.” Nevertheless, he was one of the founders of impressionism, and one of its most essential members, participating in six impressionist exhibitions between 1874 and 1886. But his focus on urban subjects, artificial light, and careful drawing distinguished him from other impressionists, such as Claude Monet, who worked outdoors, painting directly from their subjects.
Degas, as an observer of everyday scenes, consistently analyzed positions, movements, and gestures. He developed distinctive compositional techniques, viewing scenes from unexpected angles and framing them unconventionally. He experimented with a variety of media, including pastels, photography, and monotypes. By the late 1880s, Degas was recognized as a significant figure in the Parisian art world.
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Depressed by the limitations of his failing eyesight -perhaps as a result of an injury suffered during his service in defending Paris during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71- he created nothing after 1912 when he was forced to leave the studio in Montmartre in which he had labored for more than twenty years. He died five years later, in 1917, at the age of 83.
What Is A Monotype? Degas And The New Technique
To create a monotype, the artist draws in ink on a metal plate, which is then sandwiched with a damp sheet of paper and run through a press. The method typically produces a single impression, which reverses the composition from what the artist has rendered on the plate. Most printmaking processes fix the image on the matrix. The difference of the monotype is that it remains unfixed until the very instant of printing.
The monotype process had been known since the 17th century and received renewed interest during Degas’ time when etching underwent a revival. In response to new technologies such as photography, artist etchers emphasized the singularity of their expression by printing on different plates to create unique impressions or produce their work in small editions.
The monotype expanded Degas’ capacity for representing a diversity of subject matter: ballerinas in motion or the radiance of electric light. The ink on the plate allowed him to twist and contort bodies into unusual poses and create dramatic relationships between dark and light. The ability to move pigment freely on the slick plate right up to the last minute encouraged him to abandon the precise youth rendering and Ingres’ influence, and led him to invent completely new drawing modes.
Arsène Alexandre, a French art critic, believed that “his monotypes represent the area of his work in which he was most free, most alive, and most reckless…not hampered by any rule.” Indeed, in the monotypes, Degas has the most modern spirit, engaging with the possibilities of abstraction.
Watch this video to explore Degas’ monotype process, with MOMA curator Jodi Hauptman and conservator Karl Buchberg.
Periods Of Monotypes
Degas learned the process in the mid-1870s by his artist friend Ludovic-Napoleon Lepic. He immersed himself in it with enormous enthusiasm, making over 450 works during two discrete periods. The first lasted from the mid-1870s to the mid-1880s, a decade in which he worked with black printer’s ink and composed contemporary urban subjects; the second was a shorter campaign in the early 1890s when he used pigmented oil paint to depict real and imaginary landscapes in images that verge on abstraction.
When Degas described these works he used the phrase “drawings made with greasy ink and put through a press” that emphasizes process and materials. The principle of his monotypes is reflected in his own words: “not the same as form [but] a way of seeing form.”
Degas’ most significant challenge to the monotype was aimed at its singularity. Instead of accepting its production of unique works, he used it to make variations: after printing an impression, he would often put the plate through the press a second time, pulling another print. Because much of the ink would have been transferred to the first sheet during the plate’s initial run through the press, the second impression, called a “cognate,” would be a much lighter version of the first print (“light field”). Degas often applied a layer of pastel (sometimes with gouache) on top of this lighter image, using it as a tonal map of the original composition to create a new work that was both a repetition and a transformation of it.
Degas took this duality inherent in the monotype process to new realms of multiplicity.
“make a drawing, begin it again, trace it, begin it again, and retrace it”
— Edgar Degas.
1. The First Monotype: Edgar Degas And Vicomte Ludovic Lepic, The Ballet Master (1874)
One of Degas’s first monotypes was The Ballet Master, signed by Edgar Degas and Ludovic Lepic. The monotype was heightened and corrected with white chalk or opaque watercolor.
Lepic and Degas’ joint signature in the upper left hand corner indicates that this work was the artist’s first attempt at a monotype, carried out with Ludovic Lepic. In conception, the design is adapted from The Rehearsal of the Ballet on the Stage (1874), where the dancer appears as part of the group to the right. The ballet master, precariously positioned in the monotype between the stage and the void below it, was derived from the charcoal study of Jules Perrot.
Degas’ first monotype print shows the master Jules Perrot on the stage, directing a ballet’s rehearsal. The pose was derived from the two drawings of Perrot, but because Degas drew the figure onto the printing plate precisely as it appeared in the drawings, facing to the left, the image was reversed when the plate was printed.
2. The Second Impression Of The Ballet Master: The Ballet Rehearsal (1875-76)
The second impression of the dark-field monotype “The Ballet Master” was worked over with pastel and gouache into a composition with several other figures: a man facing the picture at the right side and dancers bending down behind Perrot. On the left, a white-haired ballet master, dressed in a brown coat and red tie, leans on a cane, gesturing toward a single female dancer performing on the right. Three other dancers surround him, one bending forward, her back to the viewer, to tie a shoe. On the far right stands a male figure, dressed in black, partially cut off by the picture frame. The background is dark, greenish-brown, with highlights behind the dancer.
Degas used the drawing of Perrot (The Dancer, 1875) as the basis for the retouching of the monotype. Who was Jules Perrot? He was one of the greatest dancers at the Paris Opera. He spent many years in Russia as a dancer and choreographer and returned to France permanently in 1861. The work was bought by the American collector Louisine Havemeyer in 1875. Degas signed the work on the upper right, partially obscured in yellow pastel as Degas.
3. Degas: The Star (L’Etoile) Or Ballet (1876)
The Star is one of the first examples in which Degas added pastel over a monotype. It is also one of Degas’s monotype-based works that seems to have been shown in public for the first time at the 3rd Impressionist exhibition, which was held in Paris in April 1877. This pastel shows a primary ballerina making her exit, bowing while her “promoter” waits in the background, among the sets, together with other dancers.
The severe downward angle suggests that the viewpoint is from one of the higher boxes in the theater. The composition is notable in that a large expanse of empty stage is left, providing a foil to the ballerina figure, brightly lit from below by the footlights. The background sets are only roughly sketched with swirls of pastel color to avoid the center stage’s distraction. In his review in L’Impressioniste, Gerges Riviere declared to his readers that “After having seen these pastels, you will never have to go to the Opera again.”
4. Dark-Field Monotype: Café Singer (Chanteuse Du Café – Concert) (1877-78).
Innovative lighting was a hallmark of 19th century Paris, and Degas’s monotypes Café Singer and Singers on the Stage exemplify its entanglement with advanced printmaking. These two monotypes have a common subject: singers surrounded by glowing lights. What’s their difference? One is black (the dark-field monotype), and the other is its “cognate” (the light-field monotype) with colorful pastels.
The work Café Singer is the dark-field monotype dating around 1877-78. The composition is presented in a concert space. The background figure on the right depicts a young female performer with dark hair; the design lines that shape and the figures are faint except for the gloved hand holding an open fan. The central figure [“solo singer”] is a common theatrical form: the body and the head are illuminated from below. The role of light is clear: it is used for plasticity rendering and 3D rendering.
Of particular interest in this work is the presence of white disks – white circles – which are observed in a horizontal arrangement on an imaginary axis at height above the head of the principal soloist. These are not construction failures: they are related to the performance of the light bulbs. There are light rays from the lamp (according to the article by Hollis Clayson, it is a Jablochoff lamp – electric candle), while the three smaller ones are gas globes. This project is one of Degas’ most characteristic monochrome works that concern various light bulbs’ painting performance.
The fact that Degas deals so systematically and carefully with such a real and objective subject – lighting mechanisms – obviously proves his art’s realistic element.
5. Light-Field Monotype: Singers On The Stage (1877-79)
The related monotype of the original work Café Singer is the monotype Singers on the Stage, dating to about 1877-79. It was printed from the same plate but was quite different after the placement/painting with pastels, changing the tonal gradation and logic compared to the first work. Also, there were thematic transformations: the central figure, wearing a pink dress, seems to have completed her appearance or has not yet started it (inevitably, she is not looking at the audience, that is, she is not in an active state and does not respond to her audience). The profiled figure behind her – a figure added to the composition – holding the red fan is the form that presents her song to the public at the moment. The background figure on the right, facing the audience, is holding a blue fan with both hands.
But a remarkable feature of the project once again concerns the iconographic performance of light bulbs. And this time, Degas decides to change the show’s scenery, turn it into an indoor theater (Operá) and fix the lighting with indoor lamps. The three smaller gas globes above the Café Singer soloist were replaced with a sconce placed a little further to the left, while the left lamp by a luxurious multi globe chandelier (un lustre a gaz) is just above the audience. According to Clayson, this proves the identity of the place as a theater.
6. Edgar Degas: Women On The Terrace Of A Cafe In The Evening (1877)
Vivid in a different way, the pastel on monotype Women on the terrace of a cafe in the evening, is known to have featured in the 1877 impressionist’s exhibition. The first impression was the dark-field monotype dated to 1876. Degas had chosen a characteristic sight in 19th century Paris, a group of young women who were immediately recognizable as prostitutes.
Distinctively dressed in flamboyant outfits that would catch the eye of potential clients, the women are depicted as evening descends and the nightlife of the city begins. The choice of monotype for this work is laden with significance. The women’s poses and expressions similarly disrupt social cohesion, none of whom face the others, and all express boredom or indolence. It is the antithesis of bourgeois behavior as well as a mockery of artistic convention, replacing clarity with confusion and composure with vulgarity. Journalists and critics noted the “frightening realism” of the work. As Jodi Hauptman indicates “one lonely voice acknowledged that it was also an incomparable page from the book of contemporary life.”
7. On Smoke: The Dark-Field Monotype Factory Smoke (1976-79)
In a series of subjects that Degas listed in a notebook used from 1877 to 1884, he wrote: “on smoke –people’s smoke, from pipes, cigarettes, cigars; the smoke of locomotives, tall chimneys, factories, steamboats, etc.; smoke confined in the space under bridges; steam.” Of course, smoke also captivated Claude Monet, who in 1877 devoted a series of pictures to the smoke-filled interior of the Gare Saint-Lazare.
Factory Smoke is the only work Degas devoted purely to the visual possibilities of smoke in the abstract, almost devoid of context. Monotype as a medium was ideally suited to capturing the impalpable quality of the subject. The image has “sentiment” and should probably be read as the aesthetic reaction to a perceived phenomenon rather than a visual metaphor of modern times.
8. Degas’ Late Unusual Work: The Monotype Landscape (1892)
In later life, Degas became reclusive and sad, probably as a consequence of his increasing blindness. His monotype Landscape is an extraordinary work from this period. It is an unexpected instance of Degas presenting an outdoor scene with no figures, which shows imaginative and expressive use of color and freedom of line that may have arisen, at least in part, due to his struggle to adapt to his deteriorating vision.
Degas undertook a series of landscape monotypes during a visit in October 1890 to the Burgundian estate of his friend Pierre-Georges Jeanniot. Degas called these views “imaginary landscapes,” and he created about fifty monotypes for the next two years.
Using colored oil paints, overlaid with pastels, he produced a mountainous landscape, partially obscured by mist, which verges on abstraction. Eugenia Parry Janis –who has written an essential work on the monotypes- agrees about the abstraction achieved here. She notes that “the most dramatic spatial effect is not in the view represented but rather in the optical vibration set up between the two layers of color.”
Landscape is a scene of spring. The blue hills are wonderfully tender; the sky seems to drip into the white mist. As Douglas Crimp wrote “the monotypes are landscapes in which Degas supplanted the visible world with the visionary.”
Reflecting a spirit of relentless inventiveness and a deep curiosity about materials’ behavior, Degas’ efforts in monotype not only bridge the fin de siècle but look forward to developments in the 20th century and beyond.