Degas’s story, in a funny way; it’s not at all that different from Cézanne. Degas growing up in considerable wealth in Paris visiting his family in Italy and Florence and Naples. Very well educated and sophisticated. Very, very much wanting to be a serious history painter, wanting to paint the great subjects of literature of classical antiquity, of Christianity. And seeing in the 1850s, as he was just coming up, Delacroix as the great model for how to do that. Delacroix always willing to take on the vastest, most important, most resonant themes of antiquity or Christianity or literature. Really from the 1850s you get Degas almost imitating Delacroix, choosing the kinds of subject matter that Delacroix might have chosen.
Including in this case the story of Alexander the Great who as a young man is given this horse Bucephalus, whom no one thinks can be broken. And he trains him. He recognizes that the glorious steed is actually afraid of his own shadow, and so turns him towards the sun so that the shadow is behind him and as were calms him down.
He is able to mount him and he becomes Alexander’s great horse. So it is the moment at which it’s recognized, and Alexander in this story is just a youth of, I don’t know, 12 or 14. It is recognized that he has the skills of a great leader. And it’s exactly the kind of story taken from antiquity that Delacroix admired and could do things with.
Press the Green button to explore why Degas wanted to make big traditional history paintings.