PACKARD KENDALL’s article in the Van Gogh Museum Journal 1999 reveals that it was less Degas the draughtsman and pioneer of realism and more Degas the man who found a continuing resonance in Van Gogh’s life.
In January 1889, a few days after his notorious self-mutilation in Arles, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo that the wound was ‘healing very well,’ but recalled several days of sleeplessness and anxiety: ‘My suffering from this in the hospital was frightful and yet through it all, even when I was more than a bit drugged, I can tell you that - curiously enough - I kept on thinking about Degas. Gauguin and I had been talking about Degas before, and I had pointed out to Gauguin that Degas had said: ‘I am saving my strength for the Arlésiennes. Now you know how subtle Degas is, so when you get back to Paris, just tell him that I admit that up to the present I have been powerless to paint the women of Arles as anything but poisonous, and that he must not believe Gauguin if Gauguin speaks well of my work, for it has only been a sick man’s so far’ [738/570].
Why was it that Van Gogh, at this moment of physical and emotional crisis, ‘kept on thinking about Degas?’ Startling though his outburst is, it can be shown to form part of a pattern of engagement with the art and personality of Edgar Degas in the late 1880s, extending from the time of Van Gogh’s arrival in Paris to the period in the asylum at Saint-Rémy. During these years we encounter a succession of references to Degas in Van Gogh’s correspondence; evidence of his admiration for specific examples of Degas’s art and attempts to emulate certain of his images; and the clearest indications of personal acquaintance between the two men and respect for each other’s achievement. In summary, it appears that Degas was important to the younger artist in three distinct ways. The first was as a traditionalist - in Degas’s capacity as the pre-eminent draughtsman in impressionist circles and as an advocate of the disciplined study of the human figure. Confusingly, the second function appears to be just the opposite, namely Degas’s identification at this date with conspicuously modern subjects and with an urban, literary-based realism. The third category transcends both, concerning Degas’s significance as a professional and personal role model in the later stages of Van Gogh’s career.
Image: Vincent van Gogh, Paysanne glanant, Nuenen, 1885 (Credit)