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Hilare Germann Edgar Degas

French (1834 - 1917)

Portrait de M. et Mme. Louis Rouart Circa 1904


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Reference : 4105

Medium : Pastel and charcoal on paper laid on board

Stamped signature lower left

32.00 x 38.00 ins
81.28 x 96.52 cms

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  • Description
  • Artist Biography
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After 1900, Edgar Degas essentially stopped producing portraits even though they had been a primary and profoundly expressive subject for him for the greater part of his artistic career. The reason for this shift was that he was battling deteriorating eyesight, not to mention feelings of overwhelming discouragement because of it. Capturing a likeness can be a fairly sensitive undertaking at any juncture, let alone when the artist was working in defiance of an eye disease that would eventually blind him. There was, however, one notable exception to Degas’ total abandonment of portraiture in his late period, and that was the series of eight remarkable pastel portraits he produced between 1904 and 1905 which record the likenesses, if not more importantly the relationships, between some members of the Rouart family, perhaps the closest and most steadfast friends of the painter’s life. This large pastel, a double portrait of the married couple Louis Rouart and Christine Lerolle, belongs to this series. There had to have been a great deal of comfort and trust between Degas and M. and Mme. Rouart for him to have undertaken these works at the juncture he did.

Degas had a particular fondness for Louis Rouart, the fourth, youngest, and smallest son of Degas’ great friend Henri Rouart, the great industrialist, painter and art collector whom Degas painted many times. Both Louis Rouart and Degas himself had lost their mothers at a young age, and this fact created a particular bond of sympathy between them. Louis Rouart would go on to commit himself to the revival of Catholicism in France; he became the founder of the periodical , and the publisher and director of the Librairie d’Art Catholique, which would publish books on such religious painters as Fra Angelico and Raphael. His bookishness, and a certain distracted aloofness was not lost on Degas, who factors these traits into his portraits. Christine Lerolle was the daughter of noted painter Henri Lerolle. The two families were linked not simply through marriage but through commerce, having gone into business together publishing music as the firm of Rouart Lerolle.

The pastels in this series are large-scale, like the present work, and focus on the relationship of Christine and Louis as suggested through the way Degas posed them in compositions that revolve around a chair. Of the eight pastels, three are finished works in their own right and five are studies. Of the three finished works, two are composed vertically and only one horizontally. The present work is a study for the only horizontal composition of the series. The vivid greens and blue-greens describing the background suggest an outdoor setting which, in fact, is more fully developed in the final work. The final composition has the addition of three thick tree trunks behind the couple, reinforcing the suggestion by scholars that the scene is set in a park at La Queue-en-Brie.

In each pastel in the series, the couple is posed with their backs to one another. Christine Rouart is seated in each of the compositions, either looking over her shoulder at her husband, or turning to look out of the image. Her husband, on the other hand, is shown in a much greater variety of poses, sometimes standing and turning away from his wife reading a book, other times standing behind her chair turning more towards the viewer, or as in the present work, seated with his back to his wife but swiveling around as though he is preparing to respond to something she has just said. Of all the compositions of the couple, this one gives the greatest sense of connection. Mme. Rouart is animated and energized, with her hand raised in the air from the elbow at the center of the composition. She turns toward her husband, her lips parted slightly as though she is in mid-speech. Although he is the figure drawn with more variety of pose in the series, Louis Rouart appears more subdued and inert. Degas manages the contradiction so artfully. Despite the efforts to engage, the couple nonetheless remains back-to-back, suggesting at once a host of consonances and dissonances that separate the parties. It is noteworthy that Degas chose to draw the couple so many times, with so much variation, as though one configuration was a woefully insufficient summary of a relationship that clearly had strains and palpable undercurrents as well as longevity. In some ways the portrait is at once very specific to these two people, but asserts itself as a larger statement as well. Its scale, its boldness and its graphic exhilaration strongly suggest that Degas was working hard to express something that he believed to be new and important. The 20th century had arrived with its new rules and confusion, and the traditional portrait formula simply no longer applied.

Degas was born in Paris, France, the eldest of five children of Célestine Musson De Gas and Augustin De Gas, a banker. The family was moderately wealthy. At age eleven, Degas (as a young man he abandoned the more pretentious spelling of the family name) began his schooling with enrollment in the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, graduating in 1853 with a baccalauréat in literature.

Degas began to paint seriously early in his life. By eighteen he had turned a room in his home into an artist's studio, and had begun making copies in the Louvre, but his father expected him to go to law school. Degas duly registered at the Faculty of Law of the University of Paris in November 1853, but made little effort at his studies there. In 1855, Degas met Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, whom he revered, and was advised by him to "draw lines, young man, many lines." In April of that same year, Degas received admission to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he studied drawing with Louis Lamothe, under whose guidance he flourished, following the style of Ingres. In July 1856, Degas traveled to Italy, where he would remain for the next three years. There he drew and painted copies after Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and other artists of the Renaissance, often selecting from an altarpiece an individual head which he treated as a portrait. It was during this period that Degas studied and became accomplished in the techniques of high, academic, and classical art.

Galeries Georges Petit, Paris, , May 6-8, 1918, lot 225;
Sommer collection, Paris;
Galerie Royale, J. Breckpot, Brussels, 1924;
Cleomir Jussiant collection, Antwerp;
Private collection, Europe.

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