This August, the Harvard University Art Museums will present Degas at Harvard, an exhibition examining Harvard University’s distinguished holdings by Edgar Degas—one of the most important collections of the artist’s work in the United States. The exhibition will draw together more than 60 works by Degas from the collection of the Fogg Art Museum, together with promised gifts to the Fogg, as well as works from The Houghton Library at Harvard and Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, D.C. Organized by the Fogg Art Museum, the exhibition encompasses drawings, paintings, prints, sculpture, and photographs, and will be on view at Harvard’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum from August 1 to November 27, 2005.
In 1911, the Fogg was the ﬁrst museum in the world to mount an exhibition of works by Degas and was the only one to do so during the artist’s lifetime. Degas at Harvard brings together for the ﬁrst time Degas works in various Harvard collections, from very early works created in his student days to masterworks made at the height of his career. The exhibition explores the range and depth of Degas’s artistic innovation, and Harvard’s pivotal role in fostering understanding and scholarship of his works through the commitment of its curators, collectors, and the generations of scholars who have worked with the collection at the Fogg. A key ﬁgure in the remarkable relationship between the work of Degas and the Fogg, its staﬀ, and students at the University was Paul J. Sachs (1878–1965), former professor of ﬁne arts at Harvard and associate director of the Fogg. Not only does the Fogg owe the heart of its collection to Sachs’s eye and generosity (some 22 works by Degas were given or bequeathed by him over the years) but his inspirational teaching had a profound impact on the wider reception of Degas in the United States.
“The Degas collections at Harvard are an exceptional resource that provides a multidimensional examination of Degas’s work and contributes to the Art Museums’ great tradition of teaching, research, and close interaction with works of art,” said Thomas W. Lentz, Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard University Art Museums. “The work of Sachs and those he drew to Harvard was central to the recognition and acceptance of Degas as one of the inﬂuential artists of his day—and ours. Sachs’s passion, vision, and legacy of scholarship has resulted in outstanding contributions to the ﬁeld and collections that are used on a daily basis in classrooms and study rooms. By making these works more accessible, we can explore new ideas and take a fresh look at what we think we know well.”
The Harvard University Art Museums initiated new research in preparing the exhibition, including extensive conservation and analytical research that allowed curators and conservators to reexamine in careful detail much of the collection. Building upon recent extensive technical analysis of a number of the Fogg’s paintings, all of Degas’s works on paper in the collection were subjected to a rigorous examination in the museum’s Straus Center for Conservation. A highlight of this substantive study was the unframing, for the ﬁrst time in many years, of one especially fragile drawing, which revealed a section of the drawing hitherto hidden under the mat, providing new insight into the work. The technical research was complemented by signiﬁcant archival research in order to examine the history of the prized collection of Degas’s work at the Fogg. Through this new research and ongoing study, the exhibition underscores the Harvard University Art Museums’ commitment to making opportunities available for scholars and visitors to explore and enjoy exceptional works of art.
Degas at Harvard is organized by Edward Saywell, Charles C. Cunningham Sr. Curatorial Associate in Drawings, and Stephan Wolohojian, curator in the Department of Paintings, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts. The 62 works in the exhibition will be organized thematically into sections of portraits, landscapes, ballet scenes, bathers, and horse scenes, highlighting the strength and range of Harvard’s collections.
“Edgar Degas was a brilliantly innovative artist and the Harvard collections reveal his constant experimentation with new techniques and bold ideas,” said Saywell. “Despite the broad familiarity of his art, the more we study it, the more we realize just how much there is still to discover about Degas’s remarkable creative process. In subjecting the works to detailed analysis in our conservation labs, and then presenting the results through exhibition and lectures, we intend to make a lasting contribution to the scholarly consideration of Degas’s art.”
Signiﬁcant works featured in the exhibition include:
- The Rehearsal (1873–78), the only work in the current exhibition to also be shown in the pivotal 1911 exhibition. Lent by a private collector for the ﬁrst show, The Rehearsal came to Harvard in the 1951 bequest of Maurice Wertheim.
- After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself (1893–98), which will be shown to the public for the ﬁrst time in 40 years. Due to its extreme fragility—the work is drawn on very thin and brittle tracing paper—the drawing has remained in the care of the Fogg’s paper conservation laboratory since the 1960s because techniques for conserving the work have not yet advanced to a point where the work can be handled or presented on a regular basis.
- Alice Villette (1872), an oil painting purchased by the Fogg in 1925, its ﬁrst Degas acquisition.
- Untitled (Self-Portrait in Library) (c. 1895), a gelatin silver print that shows Degas’s fascination with portraits and his skill as a photographer.
- Dancers, Nude Study (1899), a drawing of ballet dancers bathing, combining two of the artist’s most famous subjects. The drawing is a partial and promised gift of Emily Rauh Pulitzer, chair of the Visiting Committee for the Harvard University Art Museums, in honor of former Harvard University Art Museums director James Cuno, who taught a popular course on Degas while he was at Harvard.
- Two rare landscape photographs from the 1890s, Untitled (Cape Hornu, near Saint-Valèry-sur-Somme), and Untitled (The Hourdel Road, near Saint-Valèry-sur-Somme), both probably taken in early September 1895, when Degas spent ﬁve days in Saint-Valéry.
The exhibition will include archival material pertaining to the University’s collecting history as well as an autograph letter to Paul Albert Bartolomé and an extremely rare book of sonnets written by Degas, both loaned from Harvard’s Houghton Library. The sonnets vividly evoke Degas’s life in the ballet world. Due to the size of the Degas collection at the Fogg, a number of prints and drawings will not be able to be presented within the Sackler galleries and these will be available for close study during the public open hours of the Agnes Mongan Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs in the Fogg.
The exhibition will be accompanied by Degas at Harvard, a fully illustrated catalogue containing essays by Harvard curator Marjorie Benedict Cohn and one of the world’s most prominent Degas scholars, Jean Sutherland Boggs, an independent scholar and former pupil of Paul Sachs, as well as a poem by Richard Wilbur inspired by the Degas works he studied at the Fogg as a Harvard graduate student in the late 1940s. The 128-page catalogue with 90 illustrations, 50 in color, is published by the Harvard University Art Museums and distributed by Yale University Press ($19.95).