Degas’ Etchings of Mary Cassatt at the Louvre and the Aesthetics of Process

Fig. 1. Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery; ninth state (1879-80), softground etching, drypoint, aquatint and etching, 26.7 x 23.2 cm. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Writing on the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, the critic Jules Castagnary observed about the painters’ preference for “the unfinished” (Le non fini): “One cannot say that the Impressionists invented it. They vaunt it, they exalt it . . . they put it on a pedestal and they adore it.”1 The degree to which Edgar Degas may be considered an Impressionist has long been a point of critical and scholarly contention (beginning with his appearance with the New Painters that year)—his emphasis on precise draftsmanship, for example, runs counter to the simplistic idea of Impressionism as an onsite, facile recording of nature in pure color. But Degas’ processes did not yield the glassy illusionism of academic painting or the rigorous perfection of reproductive engraving. Instead, his visibly reworked surfaces serve as indexes of decisions, reconsiderations and experimentation. Compositional disunities, traces of contours that no longer belong, obliterated outlines within otherwise complete compositions and repeated mannered gestures, as well as unprecedented combinations of media—all reveal traces of the mental and physical stages of making art. This was an important feature of the artist’s avant-garde aesthetic: works in various stages of becoming showcased the ingenuity and effort of their making, at the same time partaking of the flux and changeability associated with modern life.

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  1. “Le non fini, . . . on ne peut pas dire que les impressionnistes l’aient inventé. Ils le vantent, ils l’exaltent, . . . ils le mettent sur un piédestal et ils l’adorent”: Jules Castagnary, “Exposition du boulevard des Capucines: Les Impressionnistes,” Le Siécle (29 April 1874), 3. []