Woman Rubbing Her Back with a Sponge, Torso, Edgar Degas, 1896-1911
According to his dealer, Joseph Durand-Ruel, Degas created sculptures for more than 40 years. Yet the artist rarely mentioned these works in his notebooks or correspondence, and most of the other relevant documentary sources are posthumous or secondhand. Acknowledging this gap, the National Gallery catalogue compiles a broad new range of physical evidence and cutting-edge technical analysis of Degas’s sculptural production, providing a turning point in our appreciation of this elusive artist.
Barbour and Sturman confirm that most of Degas’s sculptures were modeled from colored beeswax, air-dried clay, and plastiline, a nondrying clay. These materials were sometimes combined in different proportions and built up around improvised handmade armatures. Interiors of the forms were frequently bulked up with wine corks, which are surprisingly effective in mitigating the weight of the interior mass. Degas began modeling with pellets or rods of beeswax, sometimes applied in layers to build an entire figure, but more often used as cladding over a core of wires, clay, organic materials, or plaster. Using his fingers or special spatulas, he created a range of surface textures to engage absorbed and reflected light.
Head Resting on One Hand, Bust, Edgar Degas, 1885–88
Degas also worked in plaster, sometimes with the assistance of professional moldmakers. His plaster composition Woman Rubbing Her Back with a Sponge, Torso, for example, turns out to be a pastiche of separately modeled body parts of slightly different scales, joined together with a complex piece-molding process. Head Resting on One Hand, Bust was recently discovered to be a plaster cast, probably made from an earlier version of the sculpture. Details such as the figure’s lace collar, however, appear to be modeled directly in the plaster.
But was Degas a sculptor? The late Kirk Varnedoe, former chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, observed, “You can’t discuss this sculpture as, for example, Rodin’s sculpture can be discussed, in an historical sequence. Degas obviously wasn’t interested in inserting himself in a sculptural tradition as he knew it. The help he got from other sculptors seems to have been of a more or less pragmatic nature. This is not to say he was divorced from his artistic era: he had certain ideas about subject matter and form and representing motion that were pertinent to his time and not, say, to the 1830s. Even though he worked on these sculptures mostly privately, these currents transmit into the way he handled volume and gesture and surface and materials. Yet they seem to come to us as sculptural statements without a heavy burden of history. Degas’s work falls through some crevices in period sculpture, and I think it will be a puzzle for a long time.”