Ce que l’on ne voit plus que dans sa mémoire

French Impressionist artist Hilaire Germain Edgar de Gas, better known as Edgar Degas (Duhgah), was born on July 19, 1834. Unlike most of that band of artists, however, Degas was not a plein air painter. He preferred “ce que l’on ne voit plus que dans sa mémoire” (suh kuh lohn nuh vwa ploo kuh dahn sah maymwahr), which means “that which one no longer sees except in memory” so he stayed in his studio for the most part.

Degas was the son of a wealthy Parisian banker and a mother who was originally from New Orleans. The affluent family lived just off of the refined Jardin du Luxembourg, next to which I make my home each summer. He and his siblings probably floated little boats in the fountain. Degas followed the wishes of his father when he enrolled in law school, but he began to hang out among the engravings in the Bibliothèque nationale instead of the law library. Then he got permission to copy paintings at the Louvre. Finally, Degas officially abandoned his law studies for the École des Beaux Arts. Rather than opposing this change in plans, his parents apparently encouraged him by introducing him to major art collectors in their circle of acquaintances and traveling as a family to Italy on several occasions so that he could paint. He also visited his mother’s family in New Orleans for about six months.

As an adult, Degas remained in Paris, but moved away from the bourgeois Luxembourg neighborhood in favor of trendier Montmartre. He was known for his biting retorts in the café debates among his fellow artists. When his family wealth was gone, Degas needed to earn his living from his art. He turned to pastels when his eyesight began to fail and he could no longer undertake watercolors. This is often given as an explanation for his increasingly vivid colors. Once almost totally blind, he turned to sculpture. Apparently, he actually didn’t intend for his sculptures to be shown; they were meant to be 3D guides for his paintings. He sculpted what he remembered and then the could touch what he was trying to paint. The sculptures were cast in bronze after his death.

Degas died at age 83 on September 27, 1917. A huge cache of work in his studio was auctioned off after his death. Despite his financial troubles, he did not sell his personal collection of about 500 paintings and more than 5000 lithographs from which he drew his inspiration. Some of these works were by his fellow Impressionists, but others were museum-quality paintings of masters such as Ingres, whom he actually met. Apparently the great artist told Degas, “Make lines, lots of lines, and you will become a good artist.” Hmmm. Notwithstanding my skepticism about the sufficiency of this counsel, Degas kept the advice of Ingres by drawing studies over and over for each of the figures in his paintings, as I observed at the recent Degas exhibit at the d’Orsay. I think I’ll go draw some lines from memory and see if I become a great artist.


About Patricia Gilbert

Patricia Gilbert is a French teacher. She's Canadian, lives in the United States, but dreams of living in France. Follow her on Instagram @Onequalitythefinest and on Twitter @1qualthefinest.
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12 Responses to Ce que l’on ne voit plus que dans sa mémoire

  1. Cliff Gilbert says:

    So Degas said he preferred “ce que l’on ne voit plus que dans sa mémoire”, but when memory and eyesight failed he resorted to making sculptures to help guide his painting. How that “helps” beats me. It seems like a really complicated intermediate step especially for someone with poor vision. Perhaps if I start drawing lines I will understand it.

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