Degas: Spartan Girls Provoking Boys

Edgar Degas. Barefoot Spartan Girls Challenging Boys. c.1860-62. National Gallery, London.
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.

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12 Responses to Degas: Spartan Girls Provoking Boys

  1. tomrobertstennessee says:

    In the company of Cezanne, Monet, Pisarro and other powererful painters in the “impressionist” wings of museums, I never feel equally inspired by Degas’ paintings, pastel drawings and sculptures. I admire his light hand with pastel, his beautiful compositions and his incredible sense of gesture, all relating to his technical mastery of drawing the figure. But take the figures out of “Young Spartans,” and you’d have a non-descript landscape painting. Degas lacked the visual power of his peers.
    I never read anything biographical about Degas. Was he, by today’s definition, a pedophile?

  2. Mark Willis says:

    Not a pedophile as far as I know, but certainly a misogynist. According to Jeffrey Meyers, Degas wanted to depict beauty with “a touch of ugliness” in his art.

    Your observation about removing the figures from the background is astute, Tom. The detail of his drafting is lost to my eyesight, and the broad sweep of the painting’s field is everything, or not much at all.

  3. Goya’s ‘The Third of May’ uses the same layout as ‘Spartan Girls Provoking Boys’ but flipped.
    2 groups, 3rd group in the middle ground, hill/ buildings in the background, dead/crouching people in the foreground, guns instead of hands…

    Is it only I?

    Regards, Babu

  4. Mark Willis says:

    Francisco Goya. The Third of May 1808. Oil on canvas, 1814. Museo del Prado, Madrid. [Source: Wikimedia Commons]
    Francisco Goya. The Third of May 1808. Oil on canvas, 1814. Museo del Prado, Madrid. [Source: Wikimedia Commons]

    Thanks for bringing this resonance to my attention, Babu. Your website makes a marvelous presentation of such visual motifs. Are you familiar with the work of Aby Warburg on iconology?

    Degas, the consummate draftsman, must have known of Goya’s painting. Édouard Manet srely knew both works as he painted Execution of the Emperor Maximilian (1868-1869).

  5. Pingback: Goya’s Iconology of Provocation & Fear « a blind flaneur

  6. Pingback: Looking Back (Demurely) Over A Quarter Million Page Views « a blind flaneur

  7. peace says:

    Wonderful and nice collection of art you have.

  8. Well I think there’s more to this than just a comparison with modern day sensibilities about youth and sex. It’s about Sparta first of all, one society among the ancients that had a different perspective on the relationship between the sexes. And fi you want a modern, or perennial take, then I’m sure there are many out there who can identify with the teenage males’ uncertainty in the face of female provocation!

  9. ceai negru says:

    I relish, cause I found exactly what I used to be having a look for. You have ended my 4 day lengthy hunt! God Bless you man. Have a great day. Bye

  10. Random guy says:

    They might beprovoking them for sexual encounter as well.

  11. Kathryn says:

    There is no doubt in my mind that Degas was both a pedophile and misogynist. Look at all of his paintings of the ballet dancers. They are all young and nubile. They were frequently paid to model for him. There is no doubt to me that of course, they also were ‘paid’ to sexually satisfy him. The reason he hated women is because he only liked little girls. He only paints the back of mature women for a reason, he absolutely could not stand the mature naked form of a woman.

  12. bob says:

    kathryn I agree with you

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