Gallery walk

Edmond Duranty, 1879

Edgar Degas

Burrell Collection, Glasgow

Here’s a rare thing: a portrait of an art critic. Degas had abandoned self-portraits some 14 years earlier, at the age of 31, and chose thereafter to look solely at his fellow human beings. In Edmond Duranty he found someone truly worthy of his gaze.

The two men had known each other for some time when Degas painted this picture. Three years older than Degas, Louis Edmond Duranty was a pioneering voice of French literary realism. Yet while he championed Balzac and Zola, his own novels, no matter how well they were received by his fellow writers, failed to find a popular audience. Duranty’s real importance lay in his work as a critic. Writing in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts and his own publication Ralisme, he proselytised on behalf of the impressionists (although in his great 1876 work written in their defence, La Nouvelle Peinture, he did not use the term once). For Duranty, realism was everything, and in painting Degas was its ultimate representative. It was a true meeting of minds. "In reality," declared Degas, "nothing is shocking; in the sun, rags are as good as imperial vestements."

Degas’s aim was somehow to fuse this new sense of truth with the lessons of the old masters to portray with accuracy and grace what Baudelaire had summed up as "the heroism of modern life". It was a heroism his friend Duranty took sometimes a little too literally - his evenings among the artists and writers at the Caf Guerbois could end in heated arguments. In fact, in February 1870 in that celebrated caf-littraire, the critic was wounded in a duel with Manet over an insulting review.

Degas, however, shows him to us in calmer mood, at home in his study, surrounded by books and poring over an album of drawings. A study for an oil painting now in a private collection in Washington, the Burrell portrait is also closely related to another by Degas, painted in the same year. It’s in the National Gallery of Scotland and is of Diego Martelli, another of his great apologists.

As with the Martelli, in this gentle, empathetic character study Degas attempts to portray his friend with honesty and truth. He shows him deep in thought, finger pressed to his temple, eyes and mind focused on some abstract notion. He uses various media: tempera, watercolour and pastel, each of them carefully chosen to espress a different quality. The effect is to persuade us that, despite the picture’s lack of illusionism, we are somehow close to the essence of Duranty and can, with him, experience the different sensations of touch and light which animate the surface of his room. It is an extraordinarily intimate image.

Yet for all its immediacy and its undoubted importance in the impressionist canon, for Degas Duranty’s portrait was essentially a failure and the ultimate proof that the art which he sought, which would create a physiognomy which could in itself encapsulate modern life, could never be. For Degas was cursed by being decades ahead of his time; he has only recently taken his rightful place as one of art history’s revolutionaries rather than a mere painter of charmingly pretty pictures. A year after this picture was finished, Duranty died and Degas became absorbed in his studies of the ballet, the nude and the races, which, while they established the huge popularity he still enjoys today, were never to satisfy his one passionate wish: to be truly "modern" in a world which did not yet know the meaning of the word.

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