Edgard Degas
Jockeys on Horseback Before Distant Hills, 1884
Oil on canvas, 17 11/16 x 21 5/8 in.  (44.9 x 54.9 cm)
Detroit Institute of Arts, Gift of W. Warren and Virginia Shelden in memory of Mrs. Allan Shelden

The subject
Horseracing was a recurrent theme in Degas’s oeuvre from the 1860s. The first French racetrack, the Hippodrome, was established at Fontainbleau in 1778 and it quickly became an important destination for Parisian high society. [1] Throughout his career Degas was interested in subjects that reflected urban modernity.

The artist’s method
Degas frequently sketched horses and riders from life at the courses at Vincennes and at Longchamps. [2] He was particularly interested in equine anatomy and made sculptures of horses by mixing wax with other materials, which he then modeled over armatures. [3] He used studio props to work out his equestrian compositions, including small wooden horses or chessmen. [4] The photographic albums of horses that Louis-Jean Delton began producing in 1860 may have been a source for Degas. [5] He may also have been aware of the photographs of equine movement that Eadweard Muybridge had begun making in 1882. [6]

Japanese prints
The high horizon line, flat color, and emphasis on outline that are visible in this composition may reflect Japanese woodblock prints, or ukiyo-e. [7] It is unknown when Degas began to collect Japanese prints but, by his death in 1917, he had amassed a large collection and they were highly influential on his work.

The landscape
Although Degas was not a landscape painter, this canvas is remarkable for its sweeping panoramic view.  While the figures derive from his earlier paintings of this subject, the mountainous terrain was likely an invention of the painter and may have been inspired by his travels to Italy and Switzerland in 1882. [8]

To the Armory Show
This is one of three works by Degas that were exhibited at the Armory Show. According to the exhibition catalogue it was lent by the American collector Alexander Morten.

[1] Jane Kinsman with Michael Pantazzi, Degas: The Uncontested Master (Canberra, A.C.T.: National Gallery of Australia, 2008), 61.

[2] Jean Sutherland Boggs, Degas at the Races (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1998), 82.

[3] Ibid., 84.

[4] Ambroise Vollard, Degas: An Intimate Portrait, trans. Randolph T. Weaver (New York: Dover, 1986), 56.

[5] Boggs, 82.

[6] Boggs, 127-128.

[7] Kinsman, 63.

[8] Boggs, 135-36.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

The French painter, sculptor, printmaker, and draftsman Edgar Degas was one of the most influential artists of the nineteenth century. He was a founder of the Impressionist group, although he rejected that term and preferred to be called a Realist. His primary subject was modern life in Paris and its environs, and he is well known for his depictions of the subject of dance. Born in Paris, he began to paint early in life and was greatly influenced by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, whom he met in 1855 and who famously exhorted him to “draw lines, young man, and still more lines, both from life and from memory, and you will become a good artist.” [1]

Though Degas’s Impressionist work was initially considered controversial, by the end of his career he was universally recognized as an important and influential artist. Thus it was no surprise that the Armory Show organizers would want to represent his work in the exhibition. At the show’s opening in February 1913, Arthur B. Davies commented: “All modern art speaks French.” [2] He emphasized the point in the “Chronological Chart” he published in the March 1913 issue of Arts and Decoration, a diagram that traced the roots of European Modernism. [3] In it Davies divided Modernism into three strains: the Classicists headed by Ingres; the Realists led by Gustave Courbet; and the Romanticists headed by Eugène Delacroix. Davies categorized Degas as a Classicist, and a precursor to Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, the Post-Impressionists, and the Cubists. Thus Davies presented the avant-garde as a logical outgrowth of accepted nineteenth-century masters, and the critics understood that these “innovators in their time—‘wild men’ in their day,” were now deemed “infinitely civilized now,” suggesting that, in time, the avant-garde would become enshrined in the canon of art history. [4]

[1] Alfred Werner, Degas Pastels (New York: Watson-Guptill, 1968), 14.

[2] Harriet Monroe, “Art Show Open to Freaks,” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 17, 1913, 5.

[3] Arthur B. Davies, “Chronological Chart,” Arts & Decoration Special Exhibition Number (March 1913), 150.

[4] “Ultra Moderns in a Live Art Exhibition at 69th’s Armory,” New York Evening Mail, February 17, 1913, 8.

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