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Who the Heck Is Degas?

In SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS, Mellie is obsessed with art history and especially with Edgar Degas, a painter who lived in Paris, France, from 1834 to 1917.

Degas wasn’t always a pleasant person, apparently—he had a sharp tongue and a quick temper. (No wonder Mellie likes him.) He came from a well-to-do family that supported his desire to be a painter, so his career choice didn’t demand the sacrifice it would have if he’d been poor and his father wanted him to be a lawyer or something. But he seems to have had lots of friends anyway, and he enjoyed painting the Parisian café scene. He especially loved painting racehorses and ballerinas—he was fascinated by bodies and how they work.

One of Mellie’s favorite paintings is over there on the right: Prima Ballerina, painted around 1876. Mellie says: “There’s this dancer he did, she’s having a great time dancing and yet there’s this light coming up from the floor that hits her face in a way that makes your stomach jump.”  My stomach’s jumping right now just looking at it.

In this sense, stomach jumping is a good thing. Not, like, flu or anything.

Degas was an Impressionist, part of a group of artists who exhibited together from the late 1860s through the mid-1880s. Before the Impressionists showed up, a painting was supposed to be like a “window”—realistic, three-dimensional. Painters wanted to create the illusion that you’d glanced through a hole in the wall just in time to see Napoleon being crowned Emperor of France.

The Impressionists wanted to call a spade a spade: A painting was a flat piece of canvas with color on it, not a window. Their paintings looked less three-dimensional than the earlier, realistic ones. The artists wanted you to love the color and the brushstrokes, and maybe see something about light that you hadn’t noticed before.

Or maybe, something about human nature. Take a look at The Glass of Absinthe, which Degas painted in 1876. That’s the painting Mellie’s trying to imitate when she first visits the cellar pub. Sad, right? Like a lot of Impressionist paintings, it shows us a little scene glimpsed quickly, as if we were just passing by, rather than a monumental event frozen in time. (Absinthe, by the way, is a strong and very addictive alcoholic drink that’s really, really bad for you. Arty Parisians at that time liked it because it was dangerous, but it got the better of some of them. Just look at the expression on that poor woman’s face.)

Sometimes, Degas would set up his paintings to throw us off balance. A shelf might be on a completely different plane from the rest of the painting, or some lovely ballerina would be caught in an awkward pose. Look at Musicians in the Orchestra, for instance. Who puts the back of someone’s head right in the middle of the foreground? Degas, that’s who. And by doing so he makes us feel that we actually are sitting in the orchestra pit during a ballet.

The Impressionists kind of kick-started modern painting. Once you get away from the “painting is a window” idea, eventually you’re going to end up with Picasso.

Although Degas is her favorite, Mellie also mentions other artists and their work. You’ll find them here, arranged in alphabetical order by artist’s last name. Click on the art to make it bigger.