This autumn, visitors to the National Gallery have the rare opportunity to see a stunning group of artworks by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas from the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. This is the first time that most of them are being seen outside Glasgow since they were acquired at the beginning of the 20th century.
Marking the centenary of the artist’s death on 27 September 1917, Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell is also a fitting tribute to one of the greatest creative figures of French art.
Shipping magnate Sir William Burrell (1861–1958) amassed one of the finest collections of Degas pastels in the world; encompassing works from every period of his career and representative of some of his favourite subjects: the ballet, horse racing, and the private world of women at their toilette. They form part of the collection of 9,000 objects including tapestries, stained glass, sculpture, and paintings that Burrell gifted to the city of Glasgow in 1944.
The 13 pastels, three drawings, and four oil paintings, are being exhibited in London alongside a selection of oil paintings and pastels from the National Gallery’s own Degas collection, as well as loans from other collections which relate thematically or stylistically to the Burrell works.
Christopher Riopelle, Curator of Post-1800 Paintings at the National Gallery said: “The National Gallery has a long and distinguished history of engagement with the art of Degas. Now we have the opportunity to see how William Burrell, the UK’s greatest private collector of Degas’s works, responded to his art in turn. The incomparable collection of pastels will come as a particular revelation to visitors.”
Degas was one of the greatest artistic innovators of his age. He turned from the traditional subjects and technical conventions of his training to find new ways to depict modern, urban life. In Degas’s work, both the highs and lows of Parisian life are depicted: from scenes of elegant spectators and jockeys at the racecourse, to tired young women ironing in subterranean workshops.
Among Degas’s many contributions to the development of art was a relentless technical experimentation with materials, particularly with the supremely flexible medium of pastel that he came to prefer over painting in oil. The range of materials and the cross-fertilization of effects and techniques he used helped him develop a remarkably distinctive and deeply personal vision. Degas’s interest in Japanese prints, photography, and ancient classical friezes probably informed his innovative approach to composition.
Pastel became increasingly important to Degas in his later years at a time when, coincidentally, brilliant colour began to play an essential role in the contemporary art he admired, and his own eyesight started to fail. The tactile immediacy and luminous colours of pastel, as well as its ephemeral and fragile quality, allowed him to create astonishingly bold and dynamic works of art, distinct from those of his fellow Impressionists.
‘Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell’ is divided in three sections: Modern Life, Dancers, and Private Worlds; and explores Degas’s skills and innovations, along with the art historical and personal contexts in which these works were created. The motivations of William Burrell for collecting Degas’s works will also be explored.
The exhibition, curated by Julien Domercq, Vivmar Curatorial Fellow of Post-1800 Paintings at the National Gallery, is accompanied by a publication that sets the pictures in the context of Degas’s career and includes new technical analysis of his pastel works, offering a penetrating insight into the working practices and preoccupations of a complex and intensely private artist.
National Gallery Director, Dr Gabriele Finaldi, said: “This is a unique opportunity to see in London the remarkable group of Degas paintings and pastels collected with a singular passion by William Burrell and donated by him to the people of Glasgow. Ablaze with colour these works reflect Degas’s passionate and committed artistic vision.”