Long Reads

How Art Fund is helping audiences discover Degas in Glasgow

Edgar Degas, Before the Performance, c1895-1900

A new Weston Loan Programme exhibition brings together key works by Edgar Degas and provides insight into his greatest UK collector, William Burrell.

A version of this article first appeared in the summer 2024 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.

Edgar Degas’ painting Dans un Café, also known as L’Absinthe (1875-76), which depicts two desolate-looking people sitting side by side drinking in a café, is a work that prompted an entire debate about the purpose of art and the role of Impressionist painting in the late 19th century. When it sold at auction in 1892, people hissed at the painting because they disapproved of its subject matter so much.

The painting has been housed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris since 1986. With support from the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund, created by the Garfield Weston Foundation and Art Fund to enable smaller museums to borrow major works from national or major lending museums and galleries, L’Absinthe is one of several ‘star loans’ on display in a new exhibition, ‘Discovering Degas: Collecting in the Age of William Burrell’, at the Burrell Collection in Glasgow this summer. 

Edgar Degas, Figures in a café (L'Absinthe), 1875-1876
© RMN - Grand Palais - Adrien Didierjean .

Alongside significant loans, ‘Discovering Degas’ showcases William Burrell’s complete collection of prized works by the French artist. The works by Degas that Burrell (1861-1958) acquired amount to the largest collection in the UK by any single collector. He didn’t just buy one or two, he bought more than 20. Bringing these together with loans from respected collections across the UK and in Paris presents new perspectives on the artist, as well as a deeper insight into Burrell as an important collector and cultural figure of his time. Burrell’s significant gift of works to the city of Glasgow led to the creation of the Burrell Collection, awarded Art Fund Museum of the Year in 2023. 

Burrell did not collect Degas’ sculptural work – surprising when you consider the strength of 19th-century French bronzes in his collection, including by Rodin – but the Weston Loan Programme grant has also enabled some of these works to be included in the exhibition.

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‘We have a group of sculptures borrowed from across the country, including a work called The Tub (c1889), from the National Galleries of Scotland, and this is a really beautiful sculpture [depicting a young woman washing in a shallow bath] which is intended to be viewed from above,’ says the exhibition’s co-curator Pippa Stephenson-Sit. ‘It really highlights Degas’ experimental approach because, originally, the woman would have held a little piece of sponge, and when it was modelled Degas used found materials from his studio and put them together. It was a real miniature tub that this woman was sitting in. It allows people to discover another side of Degas.’ 

Another important work being loaned from the National Galleries of Scotland is a portrait of the art critic Diego Martelli (1879). This will be shown with a painting in the Burrell Collection of the important Impressionist critic Edmond Duranty (1879). ‘These two pictures were intended to be a pair, but they have not been seen together since at least the 1950s,’ explains Stephenson-Sit. 

Edgar Degas, Jockeys in the Rain, c.1883-1886
Copyright © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collections

An exceptional painting loaned by the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, Woman Ironing (1892-95), shows visitors another less-familiar side of Degas. ‘He’s known as a painter of ballet dancers, and people may also be familiar with his horse-riding pictures, but there are other elements, such as his series of laundresses, which are not so well known. And Woman Ironing is very rarely lent so it’s a bit of a coup to be borrowing that one,’ says Stephenson-Sit. 

The exhibition will also delve into the influence of Japanese woodcut illustrations on Degas, who owned his own collection of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints. 

For reasons including their perceived lack of flattery, Degas’ images of women bathing are often viewed as controversial, misogynist even. The exhibition invites visitors to make their own judgement about the extent to which these images could be seen as voyeuristic against viewing them as displaying a genuine interest in exploring the human form, movement and colour. As Stephenson-Sit observes, ‘Degas wasn’t this romantic artist that we may think of him as now, he was really pushing the envelope and sometimes people didn’t like what he was doing.’  

Burrell’s contribution to the wider cultural life of the times is traced in this exhibition too.  The inclusion of original letters and other archival objects evidence his correspondence with gallery directors and dealers in Glasgow, London and elsewhere.

A purchase book from 1911 shows how he recorded his acquisitions alongside original annotations that illustrate how he was researching the artworks he bought. And the presence of receipts from transportation companies show how he was lending works from his collection around the country. Altogether, they allow visitors a deeper insight into Degas, Burrell and his collecting. 

‘Discovering Degas: Collecting in the Age of William Burrell’, to 30 September, the Burrell Collection, Glasgow, 50% off paid exhibitions and 10% off in shop and café with National Art Pass.

About the author
Beth Williamson
An art historian and writer specialising in the history and theory of 20th-century art in Britain.
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