"Drawing is the artist’s most direct and spontaneous expression, a species of writing: it reveals, better than does painting, his true personality."-- Edgar Degas
One of my winter highlights was attending the Degas Manet show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibit demonstrated the relationship between the two great artists and captured the range of artists' draftsmanship. The French artist Édouard Manet is often credited with bridging the gap between two of the most important art movements of the 19th century, Realism and Impressionism. Degas, inspired by Manet, had the benefit of living to the age of 83 (as opposed to Manet's 51 years). Best known for his paintings of ballet, Degas is best known for painting ballet dancers, capturing their grace and power in a way never attempted before in art. Degas furthered Manet's vision of moving from realism to impressionism and was the only Impressionist to bridge the gap between traditional academic art and the radical movements of the early 20th century.
Like most, I admittedly was enticed into the show to see the first showing of the famous Olympus painting. Once inside, however, I was drawn to the small sketches and drawings. The sheer number produced by each man is remarkable, and it was thrilling to see the process. I marveled at the line quality and the use of it in the paintings. They used drafting tools such as pencil, charcoal, and thin washes of paint; study after study was created before a painting was executed. Both men's skill to draw from life and memory was exemplary. I sensed the expressive sense of tranquility as though the artist became lost in the drawing process to allow his sitters' characters to come through. Trying to force creativity and expression will never achieve results, but only by forgetting yourself and focusing on the object, person, or memory does it come through.
These preliminary studies give evidence of two points. One is that the immediacy of expression is revealed through drawing and that the myth of the creative genius is born out of deep thought, study, and effort. As with most things in the arts, the final product is not a product of sheer talent and genius, as some would like to believe, but rather of hard work and discipline. The show was profoundly moving and felt incredibly intimate in that I could see the masterpieces and the less romantic work that went into the creation.
I'm still trying to understand what this means for my work, but I found it a fascinating insight into the power of drawing. It reinforced my belief that figure drawing is foundational to painting. It teaches anatomy, gesture, volume, light, and estimating basic accurate proportions. The skills learned in this foundation transfer to all subjects. I am often asked whether all artists should be able to draw, and I've never had a strong opinion either way. But now I am leaning very much towards it being vital - even if your art is abstract. Drawing is about seeing and understanding and finding ways to convey that understanding to others. And that is the artist's primary role - to see or feel and then communicate what we've seen or felt.
The Dead Toreador by Édouard Manet
1860s oil on canvas
1863 by Édouard Manet,
depicting a nude woman lying on a bed being attended to by a black maid. The French government acquired the painting in 1890 after a public subscription organized by Claude Monet.