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The Horse Race in the Countryside by Edgar Degas

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Degas and racing? The two seem incongruous for those who associate the artist with subjects such as ballet dancers, laundresses and women at the bath. But, as Washington's National Gallery of Art demonstrates with its current exhibition "Degas at the Races" (through July 12), Edgar Degas' interest in horse racing occupied a sizable portion of his productivity for nearly a half-century. One of the old saws regarding Degas is that he was a dandy who attended the races to gaze upon the spectators rather than the participants. But if the 128 works in the exhibit are any indication, what he observed, drew and ultimately painted was the horsemen's preparation, as well as the race itself.

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In the late 1860's Degas depicted a family at the races in a scene said to have been influenced by his study of English pictures. A father looks down from the driver's seat of a coach at his wife, infant and a wet-nurse who has bared her breast to feed the child. It is an unusual scene with a focus on breasts and fertility. Scholars have cited various identities for the man without noting his resemblance to Edouard Manet. Degas had already made various sketches of Manet attending the races, one of which I have shown includes Degas' face disguised in Manet's hand. Note here how the whip the man holds recalls a paintbrush, its tip flecked with white paint to "color" the sky (lower left). In the most disguised of four fertility references Degas shaped Manet's jacket into a large breast with a button-nipple (diagram lower right). The man, androgynous, must therefore be an artist.Other writers have criticized Degas for his "small errors in perspective" in placing the horses and figures in the background

As with Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe (1863) and in so many other works by other artists including Courbet, Degas' figures are out-of-scale on purpose: they are his "paintings", metamorphoses of his own mind, fused with the scene and hanging on the rear "wall" of his painting. That is why his own face appears veiled, yet again, in the background but that is a story for another day.

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To conclude, Degas was the first, thanks to photography, who was able to examine minutely the different movements of the animal and thus observe correctly its various attitudes. The writer Paul Valery (1871-1945) stated that Degas was one of the first to study equine movements by means of Major Muybridge's instantaneous photographs, such as his series on Animal Locomotion. (For more background, see: History of Photography 1800-1900.) What interested him in horses and dancers alike was the theme of instability, which also haunted Monet when he painted the variations of light in the constantly changing sky

Towards the end of his life Degas perpetuated in statuettes of bronze some of the attitudes of horses which he had studied all his life in thousands of drawings.

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