Edgar Degas' letters in the NGC Library and Archives collection
The National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives houses a collection of nineteen letters written by French painter and sculptor Edgar Degas (1834–1917). The letters span the years 1875 to 1912, although the majority date to the last fifteen years of the artist's life. The collection provides a small but intimate glimpse into Degas' deteriorating vision, family relationships, friendships, financial woes, and his travels in France and Italy.
Often considered a founding member of the Impressionist art movement, Degas became disenchanted with the traditional Paris Salon by the early 1870s and joined a group of like-minded artists who frequently met in cafés to discuss the modernization of art. On 27 December 1873, Degas, along with Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro and Pierre Prins, formed the Société anonyme des artistes peintres, sculpteurs et graveurs, which aimed to organize an exhibition movement away from the Salon. Joined by Berthe Morisot shortly thereafter, the group exhibited their works independently for the first time in the spring of 1874. From then on, they became known as the Impressionists.
Of the nineteen letters in the collection, sixteen are addressed to Degas’ eldest sister, Thérèse Morbilli. Thérèse moved to Naples with her husband in 1863 and kept up a regular correspondence with Degas, who lived in Paris. The earliest letter, written in July 1875 when Degas was almost 41 years old, is mostly comprised of news regarding various family members and may allude to the artist’s poor eyesight. Degas had discovered that his vision was defective during rifle training five years earlier, after enlisting with the National Guard during the Franco-Prussian War. His vision would continue to decline significantly over the years, his paintings becoming increasingly ragged as his sight deteriorated. Indeed, there is a noticeable change in his handwriting throughout the letters, his script becoming larger and more sprawling in his later correspondence.
In fact, in the next letter, dated 23 January 1892, Degas laments the amount of time it takes him to read and admits to needing a magnifying glass whenever his brother René is unavailable to dictate. He instructs Thérèse on how to alter her writing so that he can read it better. His instructions include "writing in Ronde script with a broad-nibbed fountain pen, using very dark ink, refraining from adding tails on letters, putting plenty of space between words, and keeping lines clean."
He admonishes his sister again in his next letter, written one month later, imploring her to get a better pen and to heed his earlier instructions. He approves of her penmanship the following month, although not without noting that she could write more roundly still. He explains, “you can’t imagine the holes in my vision, it’s like looking through a skimming spoon.”
In the later letters, Degas and Thérèse send each other francs and parcels of textiles, which, on one occasion, prompted the artist to refer to himself as “an old bear” [“un vieil ours”] undeserving of the craftmanship demonstrated in the carpet Thérèse has sent him. He mostly writes to his sister from Paris and keeps her apprised of his mood and his health, both of which appear to be worsening in real time.
The final two letters in the collection are addressed to the De Mattia family and an unidentified individual, respectively. Both were written several days after Thérèse’s death in July 1912. In the last letter, the 78-year-old artist simply announces that he is in Paris, only adding his signature and the address of a lawyer or notary, Me Camus.
Altogether, the letters offer insight into Degas’ relationships and concerns as he aged. Over time, the artist grew more melancholic and reclusive, being nearly blind and having suffered the loss of close family members and friends – due in part to his stubbornness, rigid views and argumentative personality, as well as the impact of the Dreyfus Affair. The letters humanize the artist, particularly when he complains about his health, makes plans to visit contemporaries such as Paul-Albert Bartholomé and the Cassatt and Rouart families, or shows concern for his siblings. Whether he commends Thérèse on her taste after receiving a carpet from her, or discusses family issues (particularly those related to his cousin Lucie), or flatly remarks that his wallet was stolen on a train in Italy after visiting his sister, the letters offer a small but insightful glimpse into the life of the renowned artist.
The letters form part of the collection of the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives and can be consulted in the Reading Room during public hours. Degas' painting At the Café-concert is on view in Gallery C202. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.