Edgar Degas’ equestrian fascination






Race horses were an ongoing fascination for the French impressionist, Edgar Degas. Some hundred years later, Degas’ works still stand out as some of the most vivid interpretations of the equestrian world.


By Camilla Alfthan


Movement was at the heart of Edgar Degas’ iconic works that hang in some of the world’s most famous museums.  His favourite motifs were horses and dancers which enabled him to create a dynamic art form that had never been seen before. Widely considered as one of the founders of impressionism, Degas rejected the label, preferring to be seen more like a realist eventhough he did participate in seven of the altogether eight impressionist exhibits that were held between 1874-1886.


A son of a wealthy, aristocratic family of bankers who relunctantly allowed him to pursue his passion for art after two years at law school, Degas (1834-1917) today stands out as one of the most significant artists of his epoque.


His many paintings and sculptures still ressonate with viewers and – in an equestrian context –  perhaps even more so than ever as equestrian art has shifted to photography.


He made the horses seem more elegant than they were in reality and more accurate than they would be in photography at that time.


“Edgar Degas was an old fashioned artist who wanted people to appreciate the hard work behind an oevre. Rather than representing reality, he wanted to put his mark on the art world. He made the horses seem even more elegant than they were in reality and more accurate than they would be in photography at that time,” says Line Clausen Pedersen, curator of the exhibition, Degas’ Methods at the Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen.

“Degas always showed the horses just before a race in akward, challenging moments, when they were nervous and agitated, or when they refused to jump an obstacle.  He picked the most difficult poses and that was probably the reason why he seeked out dancers and race horses. There are long legs and arms all over the place and in that way he is challenging the same subjects.

Some of his bronzes seem like they consist of three horses’ movements in one, while one galloping horse in a painting twists its body in a surreal manner,” tells Clausen Pedersen – herself, a jump rider who recently ventured into endurance.


Degas lived at a time when the painting of landscapes witnessed a revival. But interestingly, he worked indoor at his home in Montmartre – the artistic hub of the time, where every street corner would sell paint and canvas. He was a true Parisian and unlike his contemporaries he never went to the countryside on a regular basis.

He only visited the Parisian tracks –  Longchamp, Maison Lafitte and Auteil for steeplechase.


He always picked the most difficult poses and that was probably the reason why he seeked out dancers and race horses.  


“He made sketches, and then he returned to his atelier to add extra layers to his existing observations.  An agitated horse would become even more agitated in his studio. He was fascinated by its beauty – its head and tail and the dynamics of its body. If you look closely; his horses sometimes look as if they’re about to rear or turn their head to the side while there’s also something going on with their hind legs – positions, that even the most impacient Arab would never take. They became a utopia, assembled from many different horses, or at least, many different movements that you’d never find in one single horse,” says Clausen Pedersen.


Despite the industrial revolution and Eadward Muybridge’s famous photographs of moving horses from the 1870s that changed the way the animals had previously been seen, Degas stuck to his traditional roots.


“He obviously knew of the new techniques in photography and studied them closely. Yet, he insisted on the classic methods and he enjoyed getting his hands dirty. He was also taking pictures but in extremely controlled conditions at home of himself or of his friends when they came over for dinner and with controlled sources of light.


Photography became an aide because he was also vain and in touch with the latest vogue but he never refers to photography as an art form.  He compared it to techniques that he could use in his works.


Whenever he took pictures, he deliberately used an older and less performant camera than those available at the time.


His friends had to keep the same position for quite a while in order for him to take the picture. So his technical control of the image meant that he losts its spontaneity.”

Throughout his life, Degas sculpted just as many horses as ballet dancers – even if he’s more known for the latter. His 14-year old dancer is his most famous sculpture and the only one that he exhibits during his lifetime.


Contrary to many other artists of his time, Degas was financially independent.


“He may not have had the largest house and he led a spartan life in order to not have to sell his art works. He always complained about his lack of resources even though he could have just sold some of it.

In fact, he lived most of his life surrounded by his works only parting with less than a third of what he ever produced of some altogether  more than 3,500 oevres,” tells Clausen Pedersen.


There was nothing unusual about him working on a piece over the course of some decades.


As he lived in the same house where he had his atelier, he could take out any given work and reinterpret it whenever he felt like doing so.


“There was nothing unusual about him working on a piece over the course of some decades. He painted the same motifs over and over throughout his entire life – moving horses and women.


The horse is a timeless motif – it is the most noble thing to paint, just as the human body. So it was a clever way for Degas to say that he was aware of the history of art – and that he prolonged it in his own, forward looking way. He was a radicalist and a self made man.”


At 18, Degas had turned one of the rooms in his parents house into his studio and one year later he became a registered copyist at the Louvre. After two years of studying law, he travelled to Italy to study the great Italian masters. He was probably inspired by the industrial revolution and the general fascination with all technicalities – but in his own way.

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