Edgar Degas. Spartan Girls Provoking Boys. c.1860-62. National Gallery, London.
I’ve never cared much for the paintings of Edgar Degas. I’ve stood before his canvases at the National Gallery of Art many times over the years, but they failed to move me. This includes the portrait of his sister-in-law from New Orleans, Madame René de Gas, who was blind. It is an oft-interpreted representation of a blind person, but it says nothing much to me. Unlike the work of Monet, Cézanne, and most other Impressionists, Degas’ paintings don’t produce a visual salience, or presence, that works with my peripheral vision. They don’t linger in my memory.
Then there are the ubiquitous bathers and ballerinas. Every provincial art museum has one. I’ve seen too many of them. And because I know too much, or not enough, about the painter’s life, I’ve often felt there to be something a little creepy about the ballerinas.
So I was surprised to come across a reference to this early Degas painting, Spartan Girls Provoking Boys. I’d never heard of it until I read a description in Jeffrey Meyers’ Impressionist Quartet. Maybe it’s a little creepy, too, but there is also something startling about it.
[Updated 111607] Tom raises the question in his comment below about whether Degas was a pedophile. I’ve never read any biographical evidence of that. What I mean by “creepy” is ambiguous and hard to articulate. I sense a coldness, almost disdain, that belies the draftsmanship of Degas’ nudes. Even though he strives to be dispassionate or detached, there is some kind of psychological turmoil that he cannot expunge from his work.
What I find startling about Spartan Girls is the emergence of a modern, even contemporary, sensibility about sex roles that breaks through an otherwise academic, classical convention. This is a painting on the cusp of modernism. These Spartan youth could be teenagers taunting each other in study hall. Today they could almost be as scantily clad.
The National Gallery in London uses an inocuous title for the painting: Spartan Youth Exercising. I follow Jeffrey Meyers and call it Spartan Girls Provoking Boys. THat and his description (p. 141) may have skewed how I seethe image:
In Spartan Girls Provoking Boys (1860-62) four cheeky, aggressive, bare-breasted adolescent maidens, wearing short aprons open at the sides, challenge five naked boys to engage in a wrestling match or sexual combat. The stiff outstretched arm of one girl, thrust toward the enticing circle made by the arms of one boy, emphasizes the reversal of traditional sexual roles. The passive boys – one crouching on all fours, two others backing away- seem unable to respond to the intimidating challenge of the provocative girls. The girls may be taunting the boys for their athletic failure or trying to incite them to glorious exploits. It might also portray a war of the sexes in which, characteristically in Degas, the females and males confront each other on opposite sides of an open space. Or it could express their youthful hopes and fears of physical love. In the background a toga-clad, bearded sage lectures a group of matrons holding their babies, who will replace the deformed infants left to die on the mountain as well as the young Spartans killed in battle.