One of Edgar Degas’ favourite themes was the horse and the racetrack. This paper investigates how horse racing inspired Degas’ collections of work by first briefly exploring the history of horse racing in France in the 18th century. Together with what horse racing stood for at that time to the society and people. Then, the paper explores Degas’ relationships and encounters with horses and horse races throughout his lifetime. Finally, by analysing one of his works about horses, Jockeys avant la course (Jockeys Before the Start) in 1878-79. It provided a significant example to how Degas’ fascinations with the horses and jockeys in motion inspired his works.
Horse racing began in England in 1775, and it started to become popular in the 18th century. French horses had won important races in England in 1865 and began to interest many people in France as it was new and original in Paris.1 The growing number of racecourses, increasing number of races, modest entrance fees and betting attracted spectators of all classes.2 Some came to enjoy the races, most came to witness modern life and riches and status.3
“In June 1891, a law was passed placing the races under the state control in order to weaken the authority of the Societe d’Encouragement, stop the proliferation of suburban racecourses, and regulate betting. This law transformed horse racing into a genuine industry, giving them the means to enrich themselves and to prosper, and established the pari-mutuel as an official betting practice.”4
Although the races started as a small privileged ruling class and gentleman’s club, the new law that established during 1891 helped the state to transform horse racing into a legal industry for betting and it transformed horse racing into a national hobby for everyone.
1 Heran, Emmanuelle. The Horse: From Cave Paintings to Modern Art (London, Abbeville Press, 2008), 345.
2 Growe, Bernd. Degas (Germany, Taschen, 2001), 342.
3 Hedges, David, Mayer Fred, Jones, Kimberley. Horses and Courses: A Pictorial History of Racing (London, Secker & Warburg, 1972)
4 Sutherland Boggs, Jean. Degas at the Races (Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art, 1998),221.
Edgar Degas was born in the 1830s, the prime time of excitement for French horse racing and during his youth the carthorse was the essential transport of everyday’s life.5 30 years later, since French horse racing became one of the most fashionable events and attracted large crowds of all classes, he became fascinated with horses and he studied at a famous school and made his early inspirations of horses from classical art.
Early sketches of horses from his student days, his copies from casts of the Parthenon frieze and depictions of horses in the paintings as Theodore Gericault (1791 – 1824), Alfred de Dreux (1810 – 1860) and Gustave Moreau (1826 – 1898), were all sources material for Degas’ own horse compositions.6
These artists enriched Degas interests in horses: Theodore Gericault, Alfred de Dreux and Gustave Moreau were all sources material for his own horse compositions.
“Unlike Gericault, Degas was not himself a horseman, and unlike such contemporaries as Courbet and Rosa Bonheur, he was too much of an urbanite to be fascinated by, or even very knowledgeable about, animals in their usual wild or domestic states.”7
This shows he did not ride horses, he grew up in city; he was very interested and he knew a lot about the anatomy of horses. He went to the racetrack at Longchamp in the Bois de Boulogne on the outskirts of Paris, which inspired both Degas and his artist friend Edouard Manet.8
5 Ibid, 16.
6 Kinsman, Jane. Degas: The Uncontested Master (Canberra: NGA Publishing, 2008), 61.
7 McMullen, Roy. Degas, His Life, Times And Work (London, Secker & Warburg Ltd), 1985, 102. 8 Bade, Patrick. Degas (London, Studio Editions, 1991), 24.
Le Jockey Club was another place Degas developed his ideas. “Le Jockey Club, whose members were renowned for their wealth and social status, the new cultural milieu spawned a new subject for French art and literature.”9
Artists played a very important role of this new culture, they painted horses as a theme in history and going to horse racing events showed their exclusive status.10 His interest enriched Degas’ keen interests in horses and as he made regular visits to his long time school friend Paul Valpincon’s estate, Menil-Hubert in the Normandy countryside.11
The following paragraphs are about Degas obsession, frustration with movement, process of work and how the new technology of photography furthered his investigation of movement.
It was highly unlikely that Degas ever sat on a horse; they were painted in his studio from memory.12 There were some references in his letters about him not drawing directly from a live horse.13 He was celebrated by those who knew him for his “prodigious memory,” made works of impressive recollections of his visit to the racecourse, with a small number of on-the-spot sketches and knowledge from other sources.14 Degas knew a lot of information of horse breeding, skeleton and muscle structure. He did not know a lot about the mechanism of its movements. 15 However, photography answered some of Degas’s questions about how horses moved.16 Degas liked horses in motion for a long time, and he produced many studies, drawings, pastels as well as wax sculptures and paintings. His was amazed about the horses in movement, because he saw Eadwaeard Muybridge’s photographic of man riding a galloping horse.17 His other sources were English sporting prints, photographs and one time a painting by Ernest Meissonier.18 With the inspiration of Eadwaeard Muybridge’s of animals in motion in 1878, which he copied and adapted. He was amazed by the new technology of photography and so he can draw very clearly and neatly.19
“Degas rarely painted the actual races. He preferred to look elsewhere. He was fascinated by preparations for a race, by false starts and the wait before the start, by the tension and the release of tension – all of them moments hardly laden and the release of tension – all of them moments hardly laden with action.” 20
Degas was very interested in the preparation phase before a race starts, waiting for the perfect start and the moment the horses are off and created suspense. Exploring further his interest in movement with tension in Jockeys Before the Start (Jockeys avant la course), 1878-79 showed that jockeys and horses were warming up before the start. It was made by oil, essence, gouache and pastel on paper. The page set up was portrait. It showed an abstract design, because the background was not detailed and realistic. The background was filled up in the yellow sky with the sun reaching to the top of the picture; the sky joined the textured grass at the bottom. The lime green grass covered half of the space, the green blended into blue, showing some atmospheric perspective mountains and reached up the warm orange sky. The texture of the grass was made with rough brush strokes not very realistic, very loose with many vertical lines.
On the right side of the painting, a pole vertically divides a third of the space, directly behind the neutral coloured pole were the three jockeys. The three jockeys and horses were waiting for the race starts. The first horse, in the foreground behind the pole is in three quarter profile; the front legs were crossed over and showing one back leg. The horse’s body was cut in half and the jockey looked same direction as the horse as he holds the reins. The jockey wore a white jersey, white helmet and his jodhpurs was light yellow. In the center of the painting, showed only the back of the horse and the other half was hidden by the first horse. The two back legs were cantering and the tail flows. The Jockey wore a red helmet, orange jersey and light yellow jodhpurs. The third rider was in the distance, standing still looking down and facing away. The first horse was very detailed compared to the third horse, because the details of the muscles and skeletal structure. The horses were textured and showed the details of the hair with light and dark contrasts.
The horses and jockeys were inside of the triangle shape; the physical features were cropped like a photograph and the details were very soft. The colour of horses were burnt umber and red ochre contrasts with the green textured grass showed the inspiration of impressionism and realism, because he wanted to paint horses accurately.
Degas carefully constructed his compositions in his studio with a sense of abstract design with detailed realism. He also painted by capturing a fragment and snapshot of reality. 21 He used horizontal sequentially or diagonal lines of horses, because he was capturing entire sequences of movement. His racetracks were backgrounds for movement and ‘jockeys were no more than conceptual figures going through imaginary motion calculated by the artist’.22
He was inspired by nature, ‘not the vision of the crowd, the world of racecourse with its special colors and lines and its special elegance. It showed how the legs of the Jockey become part of the horses.’ He was interested in movement and the tension before the beginning of the race.23
‘Degas simplified the elements by reducing the landscape to a flat field with a few trees on the horizon. He slashed through the composition with the severe vertical of the starting pole.’ He thinned oil paint and he described as essence. He painted freely that the grass looked like watercolour.24 Japanese Art inspired his later work of racecourse scenes, Japanese colour woodblock prints, and especially by the outlines by the flat colour and the high horizon lines.25 Later in the 1880s, Degas turned to horses as his regular theme and he became more interested in horses and riders in landscape. 26
9 Kinsman, Jane. Degas: The Uncontested Master (Canberra: NGA Publishing, 2008), 61.
10 Heran, Emmanuelle. The Horse: From Cave Paintings to Modern Art (London, Abbeville Press, 2008), 342.
11 Kinsman, Jane. Degas: The Uncontested Master (Canberra: NGA Publishing, 2008), 61.
12 Bade, Patrick. Degas (London, Studio Editions, 1991), 24.
13 Campbell, Sara. Degas in the Norton Simon Museum: Nineteenth-Century Art (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2009), 178. 14 Ibid,178.
15 Heran, Emmanuelle. The Horse: From Cave Paintings to Modern Art (London, Abbeville Press, 2008), 345.
16 Ibid, 348.
17 Kinsman, Jane. Degas: The Uncontested Master (Canberra: NGA Publishing, 2008), 60.
18 Bade, Patrick. Degas (London, Studio Editions, 1991), 24.
19 Thompson, Richard. The Private Degas (London, The Herbert Ltd, 1987), 102.
20 Growe, Bernd. Degas (Germany, Taschen, 2001), 39.
21 Bade, Patrick. Degas (London, Studio Editions, 1991), 24. 22 Growe, Bernd. Degas (Germany, Taschen, 2001), 46.
22 Growe, Bernd. Degas (Germany, Taschen, 2001), 46.
23 Meier – Graefe, Julius. Degas (New York, Dover, 1988), 28.
24 Sutherland Boggs, Jean. Degas at the Races (Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art, 1998),115.
25 Kinsman, Jane. Degas: The Uncontested Master (Canberra: NGA Publishing, 2008), Ibid, 63. 26 Ibid.80.
In conclusion, Degas was born into by the world of carthorse transportation in the city of Paris and at a time horse racing in France becoming popularized; by 1860, it was highly fashionable and attracted all classes. This social environment of Le Jockey Club and Gentlemen’s race, Longchamp, where Degas observed races enriched Degas interest in horseracing and his social identity as the artist. He studied and observed Gericault horses and the Parthenon Frieze as a student. He did not ride horses, he had a keen interest and had lots of knowledge about horse breeding, anatomy, muscle of the horse; and also he was very interested in start and end of the race especially in movement; time, motion and he made many drawings of jockey and horses in his studio. Inspired by the new technology of photography and especially Eadwaeard Muybridge’s book published in 1830s, so he could draw accurately. His other sources were sporting prints, paintings by Ernst Meissonier. Later, his interest in Japanese woodblock took his work into exploring the landscape in flat fields of color. His school friend Paul Valpincon furthered his interest in horse racing and where he made regular visits to his estate.
He refined his paintings in the studio, they were not drawn from the live horse but from his memory; however, he did make a small number on-the-spot sketches and used other sources such as photography, artworks and magazines to create his paintings. His interests were to capture a snapshot of realism, his backgrounds were backdrops for movement; he simplified elements with thinned paints he calls essence and his jockeys were from his memory of motion. In 1880s, he painted horses everyday especially horse and riders in landscape. To investigate the issue further, a visit to existing French racetracks mentioned and further study more works about Degas’ main collection of horse drawings from his beginning of interest to his final works. Horse racing played a significant role to inspire Degas from the history of French horse racing, to artist works of the past and memories of going to the races with friends. The development of photography in movement supported his investigation further. All these different aspects played into Degas making horse racing the central role in his work.
Jockeys before the Race, 1878-79, oil, essence, gouache and pastel on paper.
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