By Jared Bowen
BOSTON — "Degas and the Nude" at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) brings together 145 works by Edgar Degas — a staggering collection of pieces that generally never travel. And remarkably, Degas and the Nude is a genre largely unexplored until now. "While not his most famous subject, it's not ballet dancers after all, it lasts with him from start to the end," said George Shackelford, Chair of the Art of Europe at the MFA.
The show follows 50 years of Degas nudes beginning in the painter's 20s, when his work is far from being immediately recognizable. An historical painter is what Degas thought he'd be and his skill was immediately apparent said Shackelford. "He is one of the greatest draftsmen of all time. You will see that his ability to capture line is really the moral center of his art. It's the thing he keeps coming back to; that sense of the contour and the way it defines musculature of the body, the movement of the body, pose, gesture."
Within 20 years, Degas had evolved and by the 1880s was depicting female nudes with realism. They were real, unromanticized women doing real things, like their toilette.
"It's almost a completely new modern, Degas-like way of depicting the human figure," Shackelford said. But it was not without its detractors. "Many critics found them a little bit off-putting," Shackelford explained. "They found the women to be dumpy or lumpy or angular, it was either they were too skinny or too fat. But there was a great group of people who thought they were absolutely exceptional."
Before the impressionist nudes of the 1880s though, Degas spent a number of years depicting prostitutes in high-class Parisian brothels. These often-graphic works never went public in Degas' day. "They're not prurient. They're very witty and they're often satirical, but not hateful either," Shackelford said.
As the exhibition illustrates, Degas' depiction of the nude only evolved and strengthened over the course of his career, especially when considered alongside his more well-known works: dancers. "He's drawing some of the dancers in the nude before he puts tutus on them," Shackelford said. "He's sculpting nude dancers, he's in fact turning more and more in this period to sculpture."
But Degas never turned away from nudes, as evidenced in the show's last gallery where in his late 60s and nearing the end of his career, Degas is mindful of his legacy. "He is creating a new, very bold language of painting for himself … intensified color, very, very bold lines and really an energy that seems to be boundless at a time that you think he might be slowing down." Shackelford said.
"Degas and the Nude" is on display at the MFA through February 5, 2012.
MORE GREATER BOSTON
WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW WITH MFA CURATOR
Sign-up for WGBH Food & Wine updates, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.