Christopher Riopelle

One of the tests when you have this kind of ambition in painting, is to create a picture with as many figures as possible, very, very busy. And that was one of the great tests of your skill that you could bring a large number of figures into visual control, and that certainly is one of the things he is doing here. It is Degas as a very young man showing off, showing what he could do and what he could not quite do, because of course it’s an unfinished picture. He abandoned it at a certain moment, we don’t know why. Perhaps because he realized he wasn’t going to pull it off as fully as he wanted. But during the very late 50s, early 60s, long before ballet dances or anything like that, all of his paintings were these very ambitious history pictures.

And interestingly, Degas was probably the last of the great modern artists still to want to do that. Manet as we have seen with Music in the Tuileries had moved beyond that, he wanted to paint modern life, he didn’t want to paint something from ancient Greece. And he was older than Degas. But for Degas, up until about 1865, to paint that big grand kind of history painting remained his chief ambition. He realized that it was no longer selling, and I don’t only mean financially, but it somehow no longer carried the conviction it once had that led him to move towards modern subject matter like the ballet.

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