Think Edgar Degas and visions of ballerinas dance across the mind’s eye. His paintings capture dancers balancing on one foot, spinning en masse across a stage, their billowing layers of tutu tulle.
Ballet was not the primary subject that guided the painter’s hand. Degas discovered dance through music — the sounds of which spanned his lifetime.
“Degas, the man, was profoundly musical,” said Degas scholar Richard Kendall. “I’ve been working for decades on Degas. I know his work widely. He was a complex man and personality. He was a great artist and a lover of music.”
The French painter’s absorption in soirees, operas and cabaret concerts is the basis of a new exhibition at The Hyde Collection. Curated by Kendall and Jill DeVonyar, “Degas & Music” is a rich array of 30 works — paintings, drawings and sculpture — that explores Degas’ early musical influences and how they were expressed through his art. It’s a dream exhibition for Kendall and DeVonyar who, for years, have wanted to probe deeper into his musical life.
Getting the idea
The opportunity arose in 2002 when Kendall and DeVonyar visited the Hyde as they prepared another Degas exhibition, “Degas and the Dance,” which appeared at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2003. When the curators talked about their ambition to mount a Degas and music exhibit, then-director Randall Suffolk said the Hyde would be happy to support such a show.
‘Degas & Music’
WHERE: The Hyde Collection, 161 Warren St., Glens Falls
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Through Sunday, Oct. 18
HOW MUCH: $10; $8 seniors and students; $5 members; free for children 14 and younger
MORE INFO: 792-1761 or www.hydecollection.org
“Considering the musical history of the Hyde — Charlotte Hyde loved opera and had all kinds of concerts in the music room — it’s a perfect venue for this exhibition,” said David Setford, executive director of the museum. “We have a strong musical community in town with the Glens Falls Symphony, the DeBlasis sisters’ chamber music, church choral groups. Mrs. Hyde sowed the seeds.”
Not only that, but Mrs. Hyde also collected individual Degas works as well as one of his portfolios, all of which are part of the exhibit. There is a bronze sculpture of a horse, believed to be fashioned from a scene from the ballet “La Source,” which featured a live horse that, like the sculpture, lowered its head to drink from a pool of water. The museum also owns a vibrant pastel, “Dancer with Red Stockings,” in which a ballerina pulls on a pair of brilliant scarlet leggings.
“This is a fine drawing,” said Kendall of the large pastel. “It’s the greatest Degas the Hyde has.”
Perhaps more pertinent to the exhibition is a graphite on paper of his sister Mlle. Marguerite DeGas, who was known to have amused her brother by singing old Italian airs. The delicate drawing, placed at the beginning of the exhibition, conveys the importance of music in the Degas family household. His father, though a banker, was a pianist who played the organ every Sunday at their family church in Paris. His sisters sang. And his family would often host soirees for family and friends.
Degas events: Music, art, lectures and more
In addition to the 30 Degas works on exhibit at The Hyde Collection, the museum is teaming up with more than 40 regional arts and community organizations in “Season of Degas.” The organizations are hosting nearly 80 events, including concerts, exhibitions, workshops, lectures and family activities tied to the Degas show. Many of them are free. Here’s a small sampling:
THROUGH Oct. 31: “Degas’ Contemporaries,” exhibit in the Lally Reading Room, Schaffer Library, Union College, Schenectady. Free.
FRIDAY: “Degas Among Friends,” chamber music concert and reception, The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, 5 p.m.
FRIDAY: “Carmen Jones,” film at the Hubbard Hall Opera Theater at Hubbard Hall, Cambridge, 7 p.m. Free.
SUNDAY: “Music and the Impressionists,” lecture by Michael Cassin from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls. 2 p.m. Free.
MONDAY: “Degas Among Friends,” chamber music concert, Spa Little Theatre, Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs. 8 p.m.
Aug. 14 to Oct. 4: “In the Spirit of Degas,” exhibit, Lower Adirondack Regional Arts Council, Glens Falls. Free.
Aug. 15: Children’s story time and crafts, Red Fox Books, Glens Falls. 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Free.
The complete calendar of events can be found at www.hydecollection.org
“Degas was not a gifted musician himself,” said DeVonyar. “He tried the violin, but didn’t do well. But there is some indication that he could sing. But his notebooks show that music was a big part of his life. He went to opera and cabaret.”
As he himself wrote, “I need music so much.”
That passion is evident in many of the paintings. In “Degas’ Father Listening to Lorenzo Pagans Playing the Guitar,” the Impressionist captures the guitarist and his father in earthy, reverent tones — the guitarist concentrating on strumming and his father, contemplative, by his side.
Another large painting, “Violinist and a Young Woman,” is less formal. Seated side-by-side, the two look at something unseen, as if taking instruction from a teacher or conductor. Degas also frequented cafes, which he depicted in “Cafe Singer,” where a woman in black gloves and with a pink flower in her hair lets loose a song from her open mouth.
“Some of his best friends were professional musicians,” said Kendall, who arranged loans for the exhibit from such museums as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Musee d’Orsay.
“He knew members of the Paris Opera orchestra, leading opera composers. He knew a lot of singers, guitarists. His closest friend was a double bassist. The more famous he got, as a painter, the more he surrounded himself with music.”
Of course, one of Degas’ greatest sources of inspiration took place in the theater and backstage at the Paris Opera House. The large oil “Dancer on Stage,” for example, is a ballerina posed en pointe in arabesque in a decorative aqua tutu and pillbox hat. The exhibit also features two fan-shaped watercolors — one of Spanish dancers and musicians and another a ballet scene from either an Offenbach or Widor opera.
The museum also offers the more famous Degas works of dancers in rehearsal, such as “Study of Legs and Arm Movements for a Dancer with a Tambourine,” which is pulled from yet another Hyde gem, “Degas: Vingt Dessins.” This portfolio of 20 drawings once served as visual aids at drawing classes offered at Hyde House. Many of these drawings, including “Dancer Tying Her Scarf,” not only reveal Degas’ ability to impart movement, but also to draft it with technical skill. For this display, the drawings were specially restored and newly framed.
“I think the exhibition shows how varied an artist Degas was,” said Kendall. “His wide range of technique, oil, pastels, sculpture, printing-making also tell us what a complicated man he was.”
For viewers, there is an intimacy in this exhibit, added DeVonyar.
“His portrait of his sister and his father with Pagans or watching someone up close and singing in a cabaret . . . ,” said DeVonyar. “It engages viewers directly and tells us something about him that we didn’t know.”
Kendall, who is also curator-at-large at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, mounts exhibits in major museums. Still, he is impressed with the art collection in Glens Falls.
“The Hyde is a lovely place with a lovely collection. There are serious, hardworking, enthusiastic and imaginative people working there who masterminded the exhibition, including chief curator Erin Coe. They are the envy of any major museum.”