The Unmarriageable ArtistThe History Paintings of Edgar Degasby Roberta Crisci-Richardson
In this paper Edgar Degas’ history paintings are read as the painter’s reflection on the irreconcilability of married life and artistic vocation, a major theme of discussion among artists and writers in nineteenth-century France. In The Young Spartans Exercising (1860-62) we see bachelors being banned from participation in the Gymnopaediae. In The Daughter of Jephthah (1859-60), Semiramis Building Babylon (1860-62) and Scene of War in the Middle Ages (1863-65), Degas shows famous unmarried women, femmes fortes who have chosen to pursue spiritual rather than mortal passions, all alter-egos for the artiste célibataire who chooses devotion to art over a family-centred bourgeois life. This article contributes to the view that Degas was neither a misogynist nor a narrow-minded bourgeois. Far from having preconceived patriarchal ideas on marriage and women, Degas choose to remain an artiste célibataire in accordance with the more extreme aspects of the nineteenth-century French cult of the artist as genius. It is the idea of the exceptional status of the artist that Degas elaborates in his history paintings, and that rendered him unmarriageable.
Roberta Crisci-Richardson completed her PhD degree in the history of art at the University of Melbourne, in 2009, with a thesis titled Mapping Degas. Real Spaces, Symbolic Spaces and Invented Spaces in the Life and Work of Edgar Degas (1834-1917).