Last week marked Edgar Degas’ 183rd birthday, and if any reason exists to treat oneself to a gourmet cupcake from a local bakery, it is to solitarily celebrate the birth of a hero (which may or may not have been exactly what I did). Degas was a founding member of the Société Anonyme des Artistes, or the Society of Independent Artists. It was this group that launched exhibitions apart from the traditional, elitist Salons of the day, and the Society later came to be known as the “Impressionists.”
While in Boston this past April, I got to see my very first Degas, The Rehearsal, at the Harvard Art Museum. As I turned the corner into my first gallery just past the café, there it was, hanging directly across from the doorway. I knew him immediately, with his arms outstretched toward me for a Texas-sized hug, and seemingly wishing, “Bon voyage,” as I was preparing to cross the pond for the first big solo adventure of my twenties.
A few days later, I passed an hour in a corner of the London National Gallery surrounded by half a dozen more of Degas’ paintings. Having made plans for Brighton later that week, it was difficult to keep myself from going all the way into France… but there would’ve been no returning.
Degas and his friends knew how to #lovealocal. They “blurred the lines” between art for recognition and art for art’s sake. In adapting and operating under the slogan, “Without Jury nor Reward,” Degas and the Society showed that it’s okay to claim independence in your art, and not succumb to opinions of a jury specifically for their reward.
Happy birthday, mon chevalier.
“Art is the desire of a man to express himself.”
– Edgar Degas