Edgar Degas’s Last Years—Making Art That Danced

An exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago proves that, contrary to popular wisdom, the Impressionist master just kept getting better

Dancers, 1900, Princeton University Art Museum
Dancers, 1900, Princeton University Art Museum Wikimedia Commons

A new exhibition promises to change the way we see the late work of Edgar Degas. On view through next January 5, the oil paintings, pastels, charcoal studies and sculptures in "Degas: Beyond Impressionism" demonstrate that, far from drifting off into a less-than-vital old age, Degas produced some of his most powerful art in his later years.

Degas himself promoted the myth that he was reclusive, licentious and, in general, lapsing into premature retirement. But with this exhibition, a different picture emerges, not only of his personal life but also of his approach to art. In fact, Degas's personal life was arranged in an effective and workable way, reflected in the organization of his three-floor apartment.

And his depictions of the female figure in motion most often of ballerinas, or of women at various stages of bathing or grooming attained a new level of expression, aided by his methodical sculptural and charcoal studies. In fact, the key female figures in many of the pastels of the later years are closely related to figures depicted in these studies. Taken as a whole, the hundred works of art in the exhibition attest to a far greater continuity and intensity in the late art of Degas than was previously recognized.

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