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“Small in scale, vast in scope” – the Glyptotek’s newly acquired Degas

May 1, 2015
Edgar Degas, Jockeys avant course, 26.1 x 38.5 cm. Click on image to enlarge.

Edgar Degas, Jockeys avant course, 26.1 x 38.5 cm.
Click on image to enlarge.

The Glyptotek in Copenhagen, Denmark, has acquired an Edgar Degas painting from a series the artist did about horse racing. This theme was explored in the 1998 National Gallery of Art exhibition Degas at the Races and the accompanying exhibition catalogue by Jean Sutherland Boggs.

According to the museum’s press Web site:

A major donation from the Ny Carlsberg Foundation and the Augustinus Foundation has enabled the Glyptotek to acquire a very important painting by the French artist Edgar Degas. This donation – of the paintingJockeys avant course – is one of the largest gifts ever made in the recent history of the Glyptotek, and the work constitutes a major addition to the already highly distinguished collection of French Impressionist art found at the museum.

The Ny Carlsberg Foundation and the Augustinus Foundation have jointly given the Glyptotek the gift of a small, but important painting by Edgar Degas (1834–1917). Not only does this donation further enhance the museum’s world-class collection of works by Degas; it also introduces a key aspect of the French master’s oeuvre to a Danish audience. Jockeys avant course (painted between 1886 and 1890) is the first painting in any Danish museum to depict one of Degas’s favourite – and most challenging – subjects: racehorses.

“It is virtually impossible to find Degas paintings of this type and depicting this particular subject matter on the art market today. The two foundations not only acted with great celerity; they also generously secured a real gem of a Degas for the Glyptotek, a piece without peer on the Danish museum scene. At the same time the work features many of the elements that make Degas one of the most exciting innovators in the realm of painting – and one of the greatest figures in art history as such.”

“It gives the Ny Carlsberg Foundation great pleasure that we, together with the Augustinus Foundation, have been able to secure this unique Degas for Denmark and the Glyptotek. Here, it will further strengthen the museum’s splendid collection, and it will be permanently on display for present and future generations of museumgoers to enjoy.”

Here, as in his famous depictions of young ballet dancers, Degas is mainly interested in the point just before the main action commences. He often portrayed dancers warming up or rehearsing, and in Jockeys avant coursehe has conjured up a particular sense of intensity by capturing horses and their riders just before the race begins. In this small format (26.1 x 38.5 cm) Degas has condensed a narrative of frantic excitement and nerves, almost reaching a psychological snapping point.

Jockeys avant course, détail.

Jockeys avant course – Detail.
Click on image to enlarge.

Jockeys avant course is filled to the brim with those characteristic features that make Degas a pioneering figure within modern painting: bold cropping of his chosen subject matter, vibrantly quivering tactile brushstrokes and an almost electric palette. Horse shapes have been turned and turned around like pieces of a puzzle until they form a dynamic outline across the surface, allowing the subject matter and the material properties of painting to merge in splendid synthesis.

The Glyptotek’s collection of Degas’s works now numbers five paintings and pastels by the artist as well as one of only four complete sets of his 74 sculptures in the world today – including his seminal La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans (1880–81).

The new acquisition serves to accentuate Degas’s unique position within the Impressionist circle – an issue that was also one of the major themes of the ambitious, internationally acclaimed special exhibition Degas’s Method staged by the Glyptotek in 2013. Whereas fellow artists – and rivals – such as Monet and Renoir worked intensively with plein air painting and with depicting light and movement captured in a fleeting moment, Degas is interested in evoking a distinctive ‘now’ in his paintings, a moment where time has been suspended; these paintings merely use nature and what the artist sees as excuses. His subject matter was found in the outside world, true, but back at his studio an almost laboratory-like process began as Degas made extensive use of his own wax models to create exactly the right composition and narrative in his paintings. As he said: “You cannot turn live horses around to get the proper effects of light.”

Degas’s practice makes him a unique figure within the circle of Impressionists, and this painting is an excellent testament to his complicated experiments with colour, matter and compositions. Jockeys avant course encapsulates the full scope of the mature Degas’s endeavours in a single, scintillating moment – and demonstrates the range and reach of modern painting. Here, we are witnessing the point where Impressionism borders on Matisse, Picasso and the modern.

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