Once upon a time, before masterpieces cost millions, a museum director could win a modicum of immortality just with his acquisitions policy. Even now, the Metropolitan Museum, New York, has just paid $45 million for a Duccio. Usually, however, in the absence of Napoleon’s sword or Paul Getty’s bank balance, a public gallery director is as likely to achieve success by doing something intelligent with what we, the public, already own. A good start is to reunite preparatory studies with existing holdings by borrowing far and wide from other collections for a specially focused exhibition. Partly thanks to the Lane Bequest and the Courtauld Fund, the National Gallery boasts 11 paintings or sketches by Edgar Degas (1834–1917) in its permanent collection. Fortunately, the negative advice of Lord Redesdale, a Gallery trustee in 1914 who compared Degas to a pavement artist, was ignored.
In this exhibition — which is free and one of a series — the focus is on the interaction between Degas’s complex working methods, materials and techniques. It is a National Gallery in-house effort including impressive inputs by two curator/historians, a scientific officer, a scientific researcher and a restorer. Picture restoration ranks as a vocation and, like chefs, picture restorers are scientists as well as artists. Infrared reflectography, for example, has its place in the glossary of the show’s excellent, medium-sized and user-friendly catalogue.
There was a time when all exhibition catalogues weighed little, and labels were tiny. In theory, then, a one-man show released the distilled essence of the artist’s soul for the public to experience in more or less uninformed wonder. Today’s expanded labels are explanatory and in this show they are larger and more prominent than many of the exhibits. There is an aesthetic loss but a corresponding educational gain.
Degas was a conventional artist to begin with.