It is easy to forget that Edgar Degas was primarily a history and portrait painter for the first decade of his career. This article and the next look at his two phases of narrative work, and the stories which those paintings refer to.
Degas is thought to have started painting Candaule’s Wife (c 1855-56) after he had met JAD Ingres in early 1855, and after copying some of Ingres’ works on display at the Exposition Universelle during the early summer. It is his earliest surviving narrative painting, but was never completed.
According to legend, King Candaules of Lydia boasted of the beauty of his wife, Nyssia, to the chief of his personal guard, Gyges. To support his boast, the king showed his wife to Gyges by stealth, naked as she was preparing for bed. When she discovered Gyges’ voyeurism, Nyssia gave him the choice of being executed, or of murdering the king. Opting for the latter, Gyges stabbed the king to death when he was in bed, then married Nyssia and succeeded Candaules on the throne.
Degas’ painting shows the naked Nyssia about to get into bed, her head turned towards the door from which Gyges is watching.
Although not a popular story for paintings, one of its better-known depictions was exhibited by William Etty at the Royal Academy in 1830, amid a storm of controversy. I do not know whether Degas was aware of Etty’s painting, but it is very different in composition. Jean-Léon Gérôme painted the same scene in 1858-59, which was shown at the Salon.
Degas probably painted Dante and Virgil at the Entrance to Hell in about 1857-58 when still in Italy, perhaps in Rome. This may have been one of the exploratory sketches he made as he started to plan his campaign of narrative paintings for his return to Paris. It shows the two figures as they visit Hell, in Dante’s Divine Comedy.
On his return to Paris, Degas started work on a series of five history paintings, of which the first may have been The Daughter of Jephthah (c 1859-60).
According to the Old Testament book of Judges, chapter 11, Jephthah was a Gileadite mercenary leader who was called on by the Israelites to lead their war against the Ammonites. In calling for God’s assistance in this venture, Jephthah vowed that, if God would deliver the enemy into his hands, when he returned safely from battle he would sacrifice the first living thing that came out of his house.
After his military success, Jephthah returned to his home, mindful of this vow. To his horror, his only daughter was the first to emerge to greet him, in the scene shown in this complex composition by Degas.
Jephthah, resting his sword over his right shoulder in the foreground, has here just seen his daughter and realised the consequence of his vow. He is shielding his eyes, as if that could make her go away and spare her fate. Jephthah’s daughter is part of the formal group behind and to the right, and is rejoicing at her father’s safe return, blissfully unaware of her imminent role as a human sacrifice.
Degas doesn’t appear to have exhibited this painting, nor to have made any later changes to it.
The best-known of Degas’ early paintings is his Young Spartans Exercising (c 1860), which was his second attempt at this original theme. The first attempt, Young Spartan Girls Challenging Boys (c 1860), shown above, was abandoned, but gives insight into the more famous version.
Here, four Spartan girls taunt six Spartan boys in front of a substantial building. Around that building is a group of Athenian women, presumably mothers of the boys and girls in the foreground, who are talking with Lycurgus, who laid down the laws and procedures followed by the Spartans, and introduced training in wrestling for Spartan girls.
Behind that building is the city of Sparta itself, and in the distance to the left, behind the girls, is Mount Taygetus, where unfit Spartan babies were abandoned to see if they survived and merited life. Degas may at this stage have wanted to make the visual association between the girls, who would in due course become mothers, and the mountain where some of their infants would have to be abandoned.
Young Spartans Exercising (1860) appears to be an oil study for the second version of this painting, which adopts Degas’ revised composition.
Young Spartans Exercising (c 1860) was Degas’ most complete second version, which he listed for exhibition at the Fifth Impressionist Exhibition in 1880, but does not appear to have been shown there.
One of the boys, whose head is just visible in the first version, has been removed, but the groups of boys and girls have otherwise remained very similar to the first version. The building in the middle distance has been removed to open the view out, and as a result the group of mothers with Lycurgus appears less prominent and more distant. The whole image has been stretched along its horizontal axis, moving Mount Taygetus to the left of the group of girls.
Degas continued to work sporadically on this painting, leaving it unfinished when he died. The artist never explained his intention, nor did he provide any clues as to how this painting should be read. Modern readings characteristically concentrate on gender contrasts and conflict, but all too often ignore its background, both visually and in historical context.
Of the classical Greek societies, Sparta under the laws of Lycurgus gave much greater recognition to the importance of women’s roles, in bearing strong babies who would make the best elite warriors or mothers, in running their households and farms while their menfolk were away training or at war, and sometimes in repulsing enemy attacks on their homeland while their warrior husbands were away.
Lycurgus’ decision to let Spartan girls learn to wrestle was a radical move which put girls more on a par with the boys, and could easily have given rise to the taunting shown by Degas. His visual reference to Lycurgus and mothers, and to Mount Taygetus, encourages a reading closer to Plutarch’s account, which was most probably Degas’ literary reference.
Alexander and Bucephalus (1859-61) shows another story from Plutarch, of how the young Alexander (later the Great) won his famous horse Bucephalus. A horse dealer offered the animal to Alexander’s father, King Philip II, but because no one had been able to tame the horse, the king refused him.
Alexander, then only 12-13 years old, wanted the horse, and was given the chance to win him if he could tame the horse – something that he accomplished. Traditionally Bucephalus is shown as being black, with blue eyes and a large white star on his brow, but Degas depicts him as a black-eyed bay, with the young Alexander taming him. This painting is incomplete.
Semiramis Building Babylon (1861) is a history painting which was most probably inspired by major performances of Rossini’s opera Semiramis in Paris at the time, and the Louvre’s growing collection of Assyrian artefacts.
She was the mythological wife of King Nimrod of Assyria, who eventually succeeded to the throne herself. When ruling, she is claimed to have restored the city of Babylon, surrounding it with a high protective wall, to have built various palaces, and to have expanded her empire significantly.
Degas here adopts a simpler frieze-like composition, in which the queen, dressed in white, is looking at progress with the construction work from the other side of the river. Behind her is a largely female retinue, and a horse drawing her chariot, which Degas has cropped off the painting quite unconventionally.
The final work in this series of history paintings is War Scene from the Middle Ages also known as The Suffering City of Orléans, which was exhibited at the Salon of 1865, but remained unsold.
It shows three mediaeval fighters on horseback, who are slaughtering a group of naked women. One is about to loose an arrow from the saddle, facing across the painting, to the rear of their mount. The fighter at the far right, whose horse is partly cropped out of the image, is carrying one of the women over his saddle.
At the far left, two women are trying to flee, and another two are tethered to a pollarded tree, where they present easy targets for the archer. Scattered across the foreground are the bodies of four more women. In the left background cottages are fully ablaze, the smoke billowing into the sky.
Degas owned a copy of the 1863 edition of Goya’s Disasters of War, which may have formed his reference for this grim and grizzly scene, which appears to have been of his own invention. Having started this series with paintings with close literary connections, he ended it with narratives of his own.
During the latter half of the 1860s, Degas painted more portraits, and started to move towards depictions of ‘modern life’. However, in the late 1860s he painted three works showing human emotions in enigmatic and probably narrative settings, with which I will start the next article.
Carol Armstrong (1991, 2003) Odd Man Out, Readings on the Work and Reputation of Edgar Degas, Getty. ISBN 978 0 8923 6728 3.
Christopher Lloyd (2014) Edgar Degas, Drawings and Pastels, Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978 0 5000 9381 8.