How Degas drew a top hat…

Left: Degas, Detail of Edouard Manet at the Races (c.1865) Graphite and black chalk on beige wove paper. Metropolitan Museum, New York
Right: Diagram of above detail

Art is so pregnant that even in a "simple" sketch like Degas' Edouard Manet at the Races (c. 1865) there is always something more. I thought I had drained the drawing when I finished writing about it yesterday (see entry). And, then, this morning I suddenly noticed Manet's halo! Degas has drawn the top hat in such a way that there is something odd about its top (right). Sure we see it as an oval but would Degas have emphasized a uniform contour if he had just been drawing the top of the hat? Light leaves no mark on his "halo"; it has a constant outline. Nor is that all. To my eye, the hat is so close to perpendicular and our gaze so level with Manet's head that we ought not to see so much of the oval in the first place. Degas has turned the top of the hat further towards us to emphasize its presence as a halo. Manet is a divine artist, Degas says here, and so am I.

All artists are, in their minds, divine. Michelangelo was. Raphael too. When the latter died at 37, the Pope was said to be "sunk in measureless grief" and that when earth tremors hit the city soon afterwards he fled his palace in fear that Heaven "wished to repeat one of the signs shown at the death of Christ."1 The artists themselves, no doubt as astonished as we are at their skill, often credited God for their achievements. Many were humble and thought God worked through them; others were not and felt the same. Yet I think it's true to say that, never before, has Degas, the sophisticated urbanite and man-about-town, an artist of the secular world, ever been seen to make a divine reference. Few have seen that feature in Manet's art either though Seymour Howard pointed out long ago that while Christ in Manet's Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers is not a self-portrait, he does look remarkably like the artist, both with red hair.

One of the tricks about interpreting art is seeing through its illusion, the illusion that what we see is a re-enactment of reality. This type of illusion has dazzled art critics from antiquity onwards but, ironically, it is in the visual inconsistencies that defy the illusion, in the cracks and failures of pictorial magic, where the poetry in art so often seems to reside.

1. Roger Jones and Nicholas Penny, Raphael (Yale University Press) 1983, p. 24

2. Seymour Howard, â€œOlympia Says ‘No’ ” in Art and Imago: Essays on Art as a Species of Autobiography (London: The Pindar Press) 1997, p. 252, n.19

Reader Comments

I think you’re overdoing it here a bit. There’s things like this to be found in everyday passing clouds. Get a hold of yourself…

30 Mar 2013

That’s why so much of what I show has never been seen…because the meaning is embedded in forms that fit normal perception of the exterior world. So much so, in fact, that even art experts believe that Renaissance and post-Renaissance art depict that world mimetically. One or two instances, though, in an artist’s oeuvre can be coincidence; hundreds, less likely. 

Thanks for the comment. It’s useful to know what people are thinking.

Simon Abrahams
30 Mar 2013

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