Fin-de-siècle Frenchness: Discontent and Aliénation Spécifique in the Case of Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

  • Abstract:

    In the past forty years, Degas studies in the field of art history have thrived on an overwhelming narrative that rests on, and maintains, the link between the social standing of Degas the Right-wing banking aristocrat and the classicising art of the sadistic and misogynous celibate painter. The firmly established Impressionist canon, furthermore, has effectively claimed Degas as the reactionary French artist, who made all the wrong political choices, anti-Dreyfusardism first and foremost, and who stands in contrast to Camille Pissarro, the progressive artist. These views betray a limited understanding of Degas’s changing self-fashioning and paradoxical cultivation of his Frenchness, politically and artistically, within an increasing and widespread discontent with modernity. Degas had lived through the année terrible as a convinced republican and remained one all his life, but at the turn of the century subscribed to an un-ideological disappointment with the Third Republic, and its public sphere, and claimed for himself a Northern and Christian French-ness that was anti-Semitic, anti-Protestant, and of the Montmartrois working class. This paper seeks out to discuss Degas’s political and artistic stance and his cultural nationalism in the Parisian Belle Epoque, and argues that, despite the weight of the case against him, Degas’s reputation should be revised in the interests of historical accuracy.