Hilaire-Germain Edgar Degas (born July 19, 1834, died September 27, 1917) was one of the early impressionist painters, though he preferred the term "independent". That, he certainly was—independent to a fault. He was a transcendant monotypist, a brilliant pastellist, a fantastic draftsman, an excellent printer, a good painter, an okay sculptor, a terrible photographer, a perpetual experimenter, and an irascible deadpan snarker. He left behind a body of work that is astounding for its breadth and depth. Few artists have produced so many significant works in so many different media.
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Degas is one of the most popular artists of all time, and he's been widely studied. There are dozens of books on Degas in print and hundreds out of print, but only a fraction of them are worth reading and maybe a dozen are actually worth buying.
The short reviews below are my own recommendations and there will be many more added in the future, as well as expansions to those already preasent. The links to purchase books on Amazon are affiliate links. If you buy anything through them, I receive a small commission at no cost to you. If you want more information on my affiliate links, scroll down to the bottom of the page, or return to the top and click the "about" link.
Unfortunately, if there is an essential one or two volume overview of Degas' work, I have yet to find it. For those I'm trying to turn on to Degas—particularly those who are already familiar with (and sick of) his ballet scenes and sculptures—there are a handful of books that I recommend without hesitation. Since my own taste in Degas is biased heavily towards the later work, these books feature at least many nudes as dancers, have very few portraits or race scenes, and are full of pastels and monotypes rather than oils.
Hardbound, color plates, 241pp, MFA Publications 2011.
Text by Xavier Rey, Anne Roquebert, George TM Shackelford
Degas was one of the finest gestural draftsmen of his—or any—age, and this is a fairly comprehensive look at how Degas approached the nude throughout his career. The reproductions are excellent and this is one of the most beautiful books on my shelf. Degas late work is heavily represented and many monotypes are presented in the best quality reproductions I've seen. This is a gorgeous, gorgeous book. It's also a very large book, definitely something you need to read at a table.
Hardbound, color plates, 192pp, Prestel 2014.
Text by Kimberly A Jones
A catalog to the small but excellent show at the National Gallery in 2014. The text is kept short, respectful, and interesting. The latter half of the book turns into a history of Mary Cassat as a middleman for art collectors looking to buy works by Degas, and it is more interesting than you might expect. I found the history of the Havermeyer Collection (now in the Met) particularly fascinating.
The reproductions are fantastic (I compared them directly to the exhibition), the layout and typesetting are beautiful, and the book is just large enough to be an absorbing visual experience without being a pain to hold.
Mary Cassatt: Prints and Drawings From The Collection of Ambroise Vollard (Buy on Amazon) (Find in a Library) makes for an interesting parallel read, as it details how Cassat sold her own work. It's cheap and the repros are good, and I certainly think it's worth a buck or two or a trip to the library. There are two other Mary Cassat books in the same series, but I don't particularly recommend them. Art In A Mirror (Buy on Amazon) (Find in a Library) is nothing but hazy pastel counterproofs of mothers and babies (nicely reproduced, but not my thing at all), and Prints And Drawings From The Artist's Studio (Buy on Amazon) (Find in a Library) suffers from muddy repros,
Text by Ambroise Vollard, trans Randolph T Weaver
Ambroise Vollard was one of Degas' dealers, and this book is a collection of Degas anecdotes chosen more or less at random. They date from Degas' cranky period, and his personality really comes through—mostly for the worst. His misogyny and anti-semitism are shocking to modern sensibilities, though I've read far worse from his contemporaries. Still, better to know the unpleasant truths about Degas than live in ignorance. The prose will never win awards, nor will the translation, but Vollard's view of Degas is truer than most.
This is a very short book, and I recommend finding it in a library rather than buying it—especially since it looks like the only in-print editions are from fly-by-night print-on-demand publishers who specialize in scraping content from JSTOR and/or Google Books. This is not a book that you'll find yourself coming back to: it's short, not very good, and not terribly interesting.
Hardbound, color plates, 223pp, Barnes and Noble 2004.
Text by Richard Kendall
Degas was a great wit, but he was not a great writer. The prose is adequate, as is the sentiment, but it rarely rises above that. Still, the less abrasive side of Degas is on display, and if the cranky, blind, antisemitic Degas is the only one you know, this is required reading: Here is the Degas who loved his art, loved his friends, and loved his family. The bulk of this book is from his surviving letters and notebooks. The last part of the book is anecdotes, quotes, and aphorisms related by those who knew Degas.
I own the 2004 reprint, and the typesetting and reproductions are very poor.
Hardbound, color plates, 268pp, Hatje Cantz 2013.
Text by Carol Armstrong, Jonas Beyer, Martin Schwander
An enormous book with a strangely organized and poorly indexed (but very large) selection of Degas' late work. The repros are good, but not great. For the cost, I would've expected better.
Hardbound, color and monochrome plates, 128pp, Harvard Art Museums 2005.
Text by Marjorie B Cohn and Jean Sutherland Boggs
This is a interesting book, but it's not a interesting book about Degas. It's a interesting book about the Harvard Museums, the people who helped build their collections of Degas material, and Degas' reception in America. The reproductions are acceptable, but no better than that. This is certainly worth reading, but it's probably not a wise purchase.
Text by David Bomford, Sarah Herring, Jo Kirby, Christopher Riopelle, Ashok Roy
Softbound, color plates, 160pp, National Gallery (UK)/Yale University Press 2004.
An analysis of the technique used to create fourteen works held by the National Gallery or allied institutions. It's an interesting read, but the selection of works is small, rather random, and many of the individual analyses are short and, honestly, boring. The more complicated pieces are dissected in minute detail, which is wonderful, but the more straightforward works are just a snooze.
Text by Linda Wolk-Simon; Contributions by Nancy Ireson and Eveline Baseggio Omiccioli.
Softbound, color plates, 97pp, The Morgan Library 2013.
If you're interested in the circus or in love with Miss La La and the Cirque Fernando, you should start looking for a used copy of this book. I stress used because I just don't think it's worth the list price—$25 gets you a 20 page essay on the painting and its genesis, a 16 page essay on the circus and its place in Parisian life, and a catalog of 29 items with good, but not great, reproductions (mostly full page) and reasonably interesting commentary. The paper is glossy and the ink is shiny, which can make reading a challenge. Additionally, this is one of those paperback books with faux dustjacket flaps that are too short to use as bookmarks.
For hardcore Degas fans, this is worth checking out of the library. There's surprisingly little overlap with the Miss La La chapter in Art In The Making, and the background on the circus is quite interesting...but it'd be a big stretch to call this essential, at least at the list price. I scored a copy for $11, and even then, I think I probably paid more than I should have.
Degas' only other extant piece of circus art is the lithograph (transferred to the stone from a monotype) Au Cirque Medrano/Au Cirque Fernando (Reed and Shapiro 36a, Adhemar 45), which is represented here in an impression worked over with pastels from the INHA. Note that this book identifies the impression as a lithograph, whereas the INHA website identifies it as a monotype.
There is also a Degas monotype of a clown (Janis 257, Cachin 22), but it has not been seen since it was sold in 1958.
Text by Richard Kendall
includes complete (as of 1998) catalogue of color monotypes and many color reproductions of the landscape monotypes
Review coming. Eventually.
Text by Colta Ives, Susan Alyson Stein
Review coming. Eventually.
Text by Paul-Andre Lemoisne
Still the definitive catalog, though it has been superceded in bits and pieces over the years. It remains the foundation on which all discussion of Degas's work is built. I don't own this and doubt I ever will.
Text by Philippe Brame and Theodore Reff
An addendum to Lemoisne.
Hardcover, monochrome plates, unpaginated, New York Graphic Society 1968.
Text by Eugenia Parry Janis
Catalogue raisonne of Degas' monotypes.
This is the book that made me love Degas. This is the book that made me love monotypes. Degas had a gift for gestural drawing, and the tonalities he could create when he was drawing with ink directly on a printing plate were astounding. His monochrome work was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Degas captures the form, and the shape, and the feel of people existing entirely within themselves, without an audience at all. The brothel and toilette scenes are presented without sentiment or moralising, and often without eroticism (though the lack of eroticism is mainly down to the fact that Rene Degas destroyed seventy-some-odd monotypes after Degas's death because they were indecent. If they still existed, I suspect we'd all be calling Degas a delightfully artful pornographer).
The introductory text is interesting, rich in first-hand information and description of Degas's methods, and is the source of a Degas quote that I often trot out to baffle folks: "I am going to ask you for a piece of cloth to make my own kind of tampon." (Degas to George Jeanniot, October 1890)
The catalog raisonne's descriptions are very brief and the catalogue itself is out of date, but it has not yet been superceded—Janis still the gold standard. Kendall's Degas Landscapes (review coming eventually) provides further insight into Degas' monotype technique, as well as color reproductions of the landscape monotypes and a revised catalog of the color monotypes.
Reproductions are monochrome and only okay by today's standards, but for many of the images, this is the best you'll do. The color monotypes (all landscapes) are completely illegible in black and white—they all look like someone barfed on a printing plate. Kendall's Degas Landscapes is worth seeking out if you're curious about the color monotypes.
Hardcover, monochrome and 18 color plates, 290 pages, Chartwell 1972.
Catalogue raisonne of Etchings, Lithographs, and Monotypes.
Text by Jean Adhemar and Francoise Cachin
This was an attempt to update and supercede Janis's Monotype catalogue and Delteil's print catalogue. This is a much larger book than Janis, but the reproductions are worse. The catalogue raisonne of monotypes is a minor update to Janis, and Janis is still the preferred text and numbering system. I don't know how substantial an update to Delteil the print section is, but it never seemd to get much traction. These days, the definitive work on Degas' etchings and lithographs is the superb Edgard Degas: The Painter as Printmaker by Reed and Shapiro.
Hardcover, monochrome and color plates, 272 pages, New York Graphic Society 1984.
Text by Sue Walsh Reed and Barbara Stern Shapiro
Catalogue raisonne of Degas' etchings and lithographs.
The definitive text. Beautiful (though the repros are only good, not great). Fascinating. Review coming. Eventually.
Hardcover, color plates, 288 pages, Torch Press 2002.
Text by Joseph S Czestochowski, Anne Pingeo
Catalogue raisonne of Degas' bronzes. Revision of.
Beautifully photographed and beautifully printed, but not my thing at all. If you like Degas's sculpture, BUY THIS! If not...don't. Review coming. Eventually.
Hardcover, color plates, 143 pages, Abrams 1998.
Text by Malcolm R Daniel
Catalogue raisonne of Degas' photographs.
Degas had many talents. Photography was not one of them. He was an unimaginative, plodding, pedestrian craftsman who managed to reach the dizzying heights of mediocrity and competence, but rarely any futher. Going through his photos is, honestly, tedious. Some of them are of historical interest, but they are not aesthetically pleasing. Reading about them is unbelievably dull as well—though since I never made it all the way through the text, it's possible that final two thirds of the book are erudite, witty, and informative. I doubt it, somehow.
There are only five photos in this book that I think are of interest: 40 to 44.
42, 43, and 44 are badly damaged glass negatives of dancers. Photographically they are sub-par, as are any prints from them, but the plates themselves are a burning golden red, partially solarized mess of shapes and textures that bring to mind Degas' experiments with aquatint and the wild colors of his late pastels. These negatives reside at the BNF and are not available online.
40, 42, 43, and 44 were used as studies for many of Degas' late paintings and pastels.
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