forest in the mountains edgar degas
Edgar Degas, “Forest in the Mountains” (1890)

Serendipitous discoveries seem to happen a lot in the context of supreme talent, and I encountered that again in a little-known facet of the work of French Impressionist Edgar Degas (1834-1917) as I read about the new exhibition, Degas/Cassatt, which recently opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Degas, that master of the human form so renowned for his sculptures and paintings of dancers, also had a wonderfully interpretative eye for landscape, strikingly represented in a series of monotypes that were inspired by several trips to the French countryside in the early 1890s.

When I saw his Forest in the Mountains, top, it was hard to believe that it was created by the same artist whose many images of ballerinas (and equines) secured a singular place in art history. The monotype technique, which consists of applying oil paint directly on a metal plate or glass, was somewhat of an obsession for Degas; a contemporary called it his “fixed idea.”

landscape monotype degas
A Degas landscape from 1892

Degas described the pieces as “imaginary landscapes,” and one is struck by both their elusiveness and untypical sense of abstraction. (The New York Times once wrote that “the works are startling even today in their looseness and ghostliness.”) They’re startling, also, for their illusory shapes and the Rothko-like tinges of darkness amidst the pastels.

It’s always wondrous to find unexpected dimensions in the work of great artists such as Degas, who are frequently typecast as far as style or subject matter. It’s also a theme I often return to in the pages of this blog, and which never ceases to surprise: how the creative mind is inexorably pulled outside its safety net to find challenge in the unexplored.

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