Degas’s frames for dancers and bathers
Helen Gramotnev considers two surviving original frames made to Degas’s designs, one for a pastel of a bathing woman, and one for a pastel of a dancer. This article was originally given as a paper at the Melbourne symposium, Frame: Concept, History & Conservation, held under the auspices of the AICCM at the National Gallery of Victoria, 24th-26th August 2016.
Edgar Degas left behind an impressive volume of artwork, attesting to his efforts to explore a wide range of subjects. Whilst not identifying exactly with the practices of the Impressionists, he tends nevertheless to be associated with the movement, and was in fact one of the founding members of the group. His magnificent oeuvre on the themes of ballerinas and bathers reveals him not only as a prolific recorder of women and their lives, but as a meticulous technician in the portrayal of the female form.
The Impressionists followed the philosophy of the psycho-physiologist Hermann Ludwig von Helmholtz, who believed that a painter must imitate the action of light on the eyes, rather than simply choose colours which closely resemble the colours of nature. The surfaces of gilded frames reflected light and diminished the effect the artists were trying to achieve with pigment. While many of them, including Degas, continued to use traditional gilded frames for their paintings, the general trend was towards simpler frames, which neither distracted from the image, nor separated the painting from the wall or its environment.
These artists also used coloured frames to associate thematically with the images they surrounded. For example, pale grey was considered suitable for a painting of a woman, and rough wood was thought appropriate for a country scene. Degas, Pissarro, and Mary Cassatt used complementary colour combinations in their pictures and frames. As a whole, the Impressionists made radical changes to both the profile and the colour of their frames; and by the turn of the twentieth century it had become common practice for artists to design and paint their own frames.
Degas, Carnet de croquis, no 5: 1879-82, Départemente des Estampes, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris
Louisine Havemeyer, a collector and a patron of Degas, stated in her memoirs, ‘Degas once told me he considered it an artist’s duty to see his pictures properly framed’ . While the specifics of such a statement are open to interpretation, ‘properly framed’ does suggest that Degas was thoughtful about the impact of the setting on the final impression of his artwork. Degas was one of the first to experiment with white, unornamented frames as minimalist borders for his pastels, etchings and drawings, and of all the artists in the Impressionist circle, he was the most inventive and energetic in his framing choices: his sketchbooks contain over 40 profiles, dating from the 1850s to the end of the 1880s.
Degas, Carnet de croquis, no 23: 1878-79, Départemente des Estampes, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris
As his career developed, so did the attention he gave to the design of his frames. By the 1870s he was using a variety of original frames which did not include any of the ornaments common in French traditional frames. He focused instead on patterns with straight sides which followed the profile of the canvas, and which served as an architectural extension of the painting without drawing attention to the corners or the centres of the framing panels.
Two examples of Degas’s work in their original frames discussed here are Baigneuse allongée sur le sol, still retaining its original green frame designed by the artist, and Danseuse au repos. The latter retained its original frame, finished in polished gesso, for more than a century, before being unhoused by an auction house in favour of a more conventional gilded model. These works exemplify the attention that Degas invested in his work. The aim of this article is to show, through visual analysis of these two paintings, that the versatility of their settings was a natural extension of the exploration of colour and medium undertaken by the artist.
Degas, Baigneuse allongée sur le sol, c.1885, pastel on paper, Musée d’Orsay
Baigneuse allongée sur le sol shows a nude woman lying on a large sheet (or towel) spread on the floor. The basin on the right suggests that she has just finished her bath. The curious pose is rather artificial in this setting, but in view of Degas’s interest in the unconventional, in asymmetry and non-classicism, it is not out of place. It is, in fact, a fitting artistic choice for one whose preferences did not follow those of his peers: he chose, instead of daylight and landscape, artificial light, interior settings, and poses which allowed for exploration of the mechanics of the body.
Degas, Baigneuse allongée sur le sol, profile of frame. Sketch by Jared Bark
The tension between interior and exterior is emphasised by the green paint (the colour of nature) used to finish the frame, complementing the dominating reds in the image. The profile of the frame resembles a descending wave, giving it volume without distracting from the image itself.
Degas, Baigneuse allongée sur le sol, raking detail of moulding. Photo: Jared Bark
It is as if Degas is playing with the idea of a barrier that we, as spectators, have to look past in order to fully observe this nude – fitting with the idea that we are viewing her as if ‘through a keyhole’, suggested by the artist himself. She is at ease, and seems unaware of any audience. The green frame brings a balance and tranquillity which reflects the safety of this domestic setting, neutralising the dominating reds of the background and the dramatic spread of the white sheet, and allowing us to focus on the woman herself.
The determinedly unconventional pose of the model, emphasized by her unusual setting, should not be taken as evidence of the misogyny which 20th century critics have found in Degas’s work. On the contrary, the image demonstrates his keen interest in the female body, portrayed here in a sympathetic way, as he explores not only its anatomy in this awkwardly reclining position but also the intrinsic allure of the female form. He draws attention to the woman’s breasts, and their natural fall; whilst the outline of abdomen, thigh and accentuated hip also indicate his awareness of the female body. Her left leg casually crossing over the right obscures her private parts, but, unlike a Venus, she covers her face as well with her arm, leaving only a hint of her facial features. Instead it is the smooth texture of her arms that demands attention. While hiding the face, the arms leave the body open for the viewer. This naïve unawareness appears all the more striking in the somewhat bizarre setting, and the coloured frame plays a part in directing the viewer’s emotional response to both the latter and to the model herself.
Degas, Danseuse au repos, 1879, pastel & gouache on paper, private collection. Photo: Jared Bark
In Danseuse au Repos – one of Degas’s many works featuring the ballet – he uses the frame as an extension of the image. This design is known in France as a passepartout. Whilst it was not invented by Degas – it is a version of the Renaissance cassetta – his version of it is novel in its insistent austerity and plainness; he strips away all ornament in order that it should not detract from the image it surrounds.
Degas, Danseuse au repos, raking detail of corner of frame. Photo: Jared Bark
This frame, still with its original finish of polished white gesso, complements the subject on many levels. The wide frieze, culminating in a fluted top edge, suggests a layering effect, echoing the multiple layers of the ballerina’s skirt. Degas’s practice of applying similar layers of pastels to achieve a powdery effect not only gives volume to the garment, but suggests its femininity, grace and fragility. Its transparency is emphasised by the reddish hues of the paper coming through where the pastel layers thin out. This conversation of light and shadow in the fabric highlights it as a focal element in the composition, and emerges through the subtlety of the frame and its harmony with the image.
Degas also uses a contrast of blurred and focused edges in the dancer’s skirt. The sharp lines at the top and the bottom of the image are juxtaposed with the blurred edges at the sides. This sense of the unfinished adds realism to the work, accentuating the outlines while keeping an effect of volume. The duality reflected in these choices is also present in the frame, where the flat surface is opposed to the more defined raised edge.
Degas, Danseuse au repos, detail. Photo: Jared Bark
The colour harmony between frame and painting is another important element of the whole. The large blue bow of the sash, and the ribbon on the dancer’s shoulder, the turn of her right foot, accentuated with white, and the gauzy whites and greys of her garment, are all the more pronounced because the frame is subservient to the image, reinforcing the delicate harmonies of the composition. The soft ivory of the gesso finish complements the dominant tones, and helps to create the subdued mood of the painting: resting, and private.
The motif of a young dancer leaning forward to reach her foot is common in Degas’s depictions of ballerinas. As with his bathing women, it suggests privacy, the ballerina’s inward focus implying a lack of awareness of any audience. The feeling of ‘looking through a key hole’, associated with the bathers, is also relevant in this private scene with a young ballerina. The frame balances the intimate composition through an optical device which appears to extend the image beyond the edge of the paper; and it works further, to integrate it seamlessly into its surroundings. This extension of the surface of the painting through its frame results in the work separating itself from the wall only with great subtlety, allowing the quietness of the image to expand beyond its physical dimensions.
Degas, Danseuse au repos in sale frame, Sotheby’s New York, 3 November 2008. Photo: Jared Bark
Unfortunately, Danseuse au repos was removed from its original gessoed frame between its sale in London in 1999 and its subsequent sale in New York in 2008, and although it appears to have been sold along with the empty frame, once such a separation has occurred there can be no reliance on the two parts of the work remaining together.
Given the impact that a frame could have on the presentation of the artwork, it is unsurprising that Degas defended his artistic choices when he could. According to an account by the art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, repeatedly referred to by the historians of Degas, when visiting a friend who had purchased one of his paintings and reframed it without permission in a gilded setting, the artist took the painting down from the wall, removed the frame, and walked out of the house with his painting under his arm . This uncompromising move was indicative of his convictions as to how his work should be presented – and there are other personal accounts of Degas’s insistence on his framing choices.
Degas, Danseuse au repos, Sotheby’s, 1999 & 2008
These artists could thus be said to be ‘curating’ their paintings in frames of their own design, in order to control the whole work and its environment, and to present it as they wished it to be seen. Degas’s dancer is private, unaware and vulnerable. She is not in her character, on stage, performing a rôle in costume. She is herself: leaning forward to rest from the physical exertion and emotional demands of her profession. At the time this image was painted, ballet was seen as an art-form in decline, plagued with stereotypes and low-class associations; and an awareness of this can affect the viewer’s perception of the painting. The doll-like appearance of the ballerina, adorned with an over-sized bow, is contrasted with her pose, expressive of the realities of her situation. The simplicity of the frame designed by Degas not only marries the image to its surroundings, but it reflects the mundanity – perhaps the banality – of the subject, emphasizing its human truth; – a truth which is lost in the aggrandizing setting of the more traditional frame (above).
So, how much does a frame matter? It is an allusive part of the art, often overlooked and taken for granted. The frames Degas used were, at the time, as provocative and daring as the images they held. His relentless defence of his framing practices tells us that these settings are not to be treated just as a casing for the painting, but as an inseparable extension of his artwork. If the frame is the artist’s specific choice, his finishing touch to a picture, it should be respected. After all, we accept his choices on the canvas, so why not in the frame?
With grateful thanks to Jed Bark for all the splendid photographs.
Helen Gramotnev is an art historian, curator and blogger. Her specialty is in European early modern and modern art, particularly of the French 19th century and the Dutch Golden Age. She is the author of Brushword Art Blog
Elizabeth Easton & Jared Bark, ‘“Pictures properly framed”: Degas & innovation in Impressionist frames‘, The Burlington Magazine, September 2008, no. 1266, pp. 603-11
Isabelle Cahn, ‘Degas’s frames’, The Burlington Magazine, April 1989, no. 1033, pp. 289-92
Isabelle Cahn, Cadres de peintres, 1989, Paris
 Louisine Havemeyer: Sixteen to Sixty: Memoirs of a Collector, New York 1993, p. 250
 Ambroise Vollard, Degas: an intimate portrait, 1937, p. 66