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Degas at The Hyde: Artist as Bourgeois Gentleman

Degas at The Hyde: Artist as Bourgeois Gentleman November 27, 2023
Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917), Self Portrait, 1857, Etching and drypoint, 10-1/2 x 7 inches, Private Collection. Photo courtesy of Landau Traveling Exhibitions.
Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917), Self Portrait, 1857, Etching and drypoint, 10-1/2 x 7 inches, Private Collection. Photo courtesy of Landau Traveling Exhibitions.

Few artists of his stature are as elusive as Edgar Degas. To be sure, his dancers, jockeys and horses, portraits and nudes are ubiquitous – but what do they signify? No one knows.

If that question interests you, you would do well to visit “Edgar Degas, The Private Impressionist: Works on Paper by the Artist and his Circle,” the traveling exhibition that will remain on view at The Hyde Collection through December 31. 

The expansive exhibition, hung, appropriately enough, in the style of a 19th century French salon, includes self-portraits and depictions of the artist’s family, housekeeper and friends.

The glimpse into the artist’s private world offered here re-enforces the image of Degas as a man of inherited wealth who never shed the upper-class attitudes of his day and who was an observer of, rather than a participant in, the demimonde that captivated his contemporaries.

The late art critic Peter Schjeldahl once wrote that when painting or sketching jockeys or dancers, uppermost in Degas’ mind was “perfection” – not the perfection of the human subject, but of his art.

His subjects, I would hazard to guess, are merely the remains of his day, images that might float across the consciousness of any typical Parisian bourgeois gentleman – horses, dogs, chorines. He values them neither more nor less than other members of his clubs might.

While Degas may have lacked empathy for his dancers, Schjeldahl writes, “he loves to watch them fight balky muscles and gravity… as they torture themselves to be on display.”

That is as precise a description as you will find of “Dancer with Red Stockings,” an 1884 pastel that is included in a complementary exhibition, “Degas at The Hyde: A Master of Form (Works from The Hyde’s permanent collection),” also on view through December 31.

Louis and Charlotte Hyde purchased their first work by Edgar Degas in 1916; Mrs. Hyde purchased “Dancer with Red Stockings in 1944. That same year, she purchased a limited edition of prints that were made from drawings, selected by the artist himself for reproduction as color heliotypes. The prints were rarely, if ever, displayed until 2009, when The Hyde mounted “Degas and Music.” They have not, so far as I know, been shown since then.

Whether originating shows such as this past summer’s “Songs of the Horizon: David Smith, Music and Dance,” bringing traveling shows of the calibre of “Edgar Degas, The Private Impressionist: Works on Paper by the Artist and his Circle” to Glens Falls or developing exhibitions based on its own historically and artistically rich holdings, The Hyde demonstrates time and time again that it a regional resource of incalculable value.

19th and 20th Century Illustration

 Two other exhibitions are also on view at The Hyde: “Ron Jude: 12 Hz,” black and white photographs from the impending environmental apocalypse; and “Illustrations: Honoré Daumier, Winslow Homer, and Anthony Saris,” a display of illustrations by two great commercial artists of the 19th century artists and a 20th century successor: Bolton Landing resident Anthony Saris. 

All three worked for and through the mass media of their day. Daumier (1808–1879) produced satirical cartoons and caricatures for a variety of publications, including “Le Charivari.”

Long before Winslow Homer (1836-1910) became celebrated as a painter, he was widely known for the wood engravings that he published by “Harper’s Weekly,” among other magazines

One of his first was Calvary Charge, published in Harper’s in July, 1862.  Another, “The Army of the Potomac – A Sharp Shooter on Picket Duty,” was published in November, 1862.

Like the combat photographers of World War II – Robert Capra, Margaret Bourke-White and Lee Miller, to name just a few, Homer went to the front lines to document the action.

And like those photographers, many of whom were on assignment from “Life” magazine, Homer published his work in the most popular medium of the day.

Anthony Saris (1923-2011) worked in the most popular medium of his era: television.

According to son Jason Saris, who lent The Hyde these illustrations, Saris attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn on the GI bill, honing the skills necessary to take advantage of the commercial opportunities available in the publishing capital of mid-century America, New York.

“As a freelance illustrator, my father took whatever jobs came his way, from a corporation’s annual report to the “American Journal of Nursing” to “The New York Times” and CBS,” said Jason Saris.

Once a commercial assignment was completed, “my father put it away and returned to whatever he happened to be  working on for himself,” Saris added.

At Pratt, Anthony Saris met and befriended many other artists who came home from World War II at roughly the same time and were looking for ways to support themselves and their families even as they pursued their interests in fine art.

Among those was an art director named Ernie Smith, a Manhattan neighbor with whom the Saris family began spending summers at a cottage colony north of Bolton Landing, Port Jerry.

“They never missed a year, and they were joined by other artists. For three weeks every August, Port Jerry became an artists’ colony,” said Jason Saris.

Upon retiring from commercial art and teaching, Anthony Saris moved to Bolton Landing in the 1990s, where he lived year-round until his death in 2011.

“Lake George has attracted artists from the 19th century through the 20th century, and it’s gratifying for me to see my father recognized as a member of the club,” said Jason Saris.

The Hyde Collection, which is located at 161 Warren Street, Glens Falls, is open Thursday through Sunday, 10 am to 5 pm. Call 518-792-1761 for information.

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