Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

Luciano Mangiafico

As a young man in Paris, young Edgar Degas (1834-1917), following his father’s wishes, trained for a while as a lawyer, but then heard his own distant drummer and began to sketch and paint. He did well. Today we know him as the French Impressionist artist, known for his pastel drawings and oil paintings. He also produced bronze sculptures, prints and drawings. He is especially identified with the subject of dance; more than half of his works depict dancers. Degas is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism, though he didn't like that term, preferring "realist",and did not paint outdoors as many Impressionists did. He was a superb draftsman, and masterly in depicting movement, as we see in his renditions of ballet dancers, bathing female nudes, and even racehorses. Critics say his portraits are notable for their psychological complexity;  while showing movement, they may  depict ballerinas in lonely, unflattering, even awkward, postures, making them portrayals of human isolation.

Degas had a strong link with Naples, both personally
and professionally. He was French, but his father was born in Naples, and Edgar visited his grandfather, aunts, and cousins in Italy, many times. He stayed in Naples for months. He attended the Royal Institute of Fine Arts there and learned the Neapolitan dialect and songs. Indeed, he was part of the Neapolitan cultural scene and was good friends with several Neapolitan artists.

The Degas family link to Naples began in 1793, when Edgar’s grandfather, Renè Hilaire De Gas (1770-1858), fled Paris for Naples, likely to avoid the fate of Queen Marie Antoinette, who was executed during the French Revolution. In Naples, Grandfather Renè began working for a merchant’s firm and soon set up his own business as a stockbroker and banker. In 1804 he married Giovanna Teresa Freppa, a native of Livorno. They had seven children, four boys and three girls. As adults the boys kept French citizenship while the girls married into the Neapolitan nobility. One of the four boys, Auguste De Gas (1807-74), was to be the father of our renowned painter. Auguste got married in 1832 in Paris to Marie-Celestine Musson, a native of New Orleans, Louisiana. (Readers will note that Louisiana was still culturally French, though legally had passed to the new United States of America as part of the "Louisiana Purchase".)

One of the properties that grandfather Renè bought in Naples after the Napoleonic Wars was a suburban summer villa, now known as Villa Paterno-Flagella on the Capodimonte heights, near the San Rocco Valley. It was in this villa, built in the 1720s, that in the late 1850s Degas painted one of his two Neapolitan landscape paintings (image), showing the San Rocco Valley with Castel Sant’ Elmo in the background (now in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, UK).

Grandfather Renè De Gas also began to buy, one floor at a time, the Palazzo Pignatelli di Monteleone, near both Piazza del Gesù and Santa Chiara (image, right). It had 100 rooms and the entire Degas family, when in Naples, lived there. This building, built in 1579, was enlarged and restructured, including the monumental entryway, in 1717-25 by architect Ferdinando Sanfelice. In 1760, infamous lecher and ladies' man Giacomo Casanova, in his second stay in Naples, was often a visitor in the building. Our painter's father, August De Gas, lived in Paris but often visited Naples to see his father. Our painter, Edgar was the oldest son, followed by a number of brothers and sisters.

Edgar Degas' first trip to Naples was in 1854. He was enthused by the colorful landscape and wrote: “…The Castel dell' Ovo rose in a golden mass. The boats on the sand were dark sepia stains. The gray was not the cold one of the English Channel but rather similar to the throat of a pigeon” In Naples, he stayed in his grandfather’s house for months, was a guest student at the Royal Institute of Fine Arts and studied drawing, sculpting, and painting. That institute was then in the Royal Museum, now the National Archeological Museum. In his grandfather’s house he spent time copying works of the great Renaissance masters. (That is still what all painters do. Copy that Titian or Leonardo over there. You might learn something.) His second trip to Naples was is July-Oct, 1856. Same routine except this time he began to paint portraits of his Neapolitan relatives. He went to Rome from Naples for a number of months, coming back to Naples in July 1857. It was then that he painted a masterful portrait of his grandfather and the view of Castel Sant’Elmo (shown above). Degas did not work outside directly from nature and only one other of his landscape views of Naples is known. From 1854 to 1886, Degas visited Naples every year except in Fall 1872-Spring 73, when he visited New Orleans for five months.

Degas never married. Unlike many other visitors to Naples, he paid little attention to Neapolitan women, except as potential subjects for his drawings. His presence in Naples is remembered by a marble plaque affixed in 1966 to the wall of Palazzo Pignatelli di Monteleone by the Institut Francais. It reads:

Here in the monumental Pignatelli Palazzo of Monteleone / is where EDGAR DEGAS, glory of modern art, resided in Naples. /
It is where his grandfather lived, turned himself from a Parisian into a Neapolitan, and acquired the Palazzo for his family.
The influence of Naples on Edgar Degas is evident in the clarity of his designs and especially in the feeling of motion and activity in his figures, a quality that led to movementism, a trend that critics claim was inspired by the ceaseless liveliness Degas must have seen in Naples. Everyone is moving, perhaps going nowhere in particular, but they're on the move. In 1896 Degas met poet Paul Valery (1871-1945), 37 years his junior. They became lifelong friends, and Valery had some telling things to say about Degas in his biography of the painter (Degas Danse Dessin, 1937): Degas did not consider his art spontaneous but the result of his study of the work of great masters of the past and of life itself and his constant reworking and improvement of his designs and paintings. Degas was inspired by the life he had seen in the streets of Naples. Valery said, “I see the coexistence of different conditions. Degas mimicked Naples, where there is no word without a gesture, no person without a multitude of other characters, always there and always ready.” Looking at it like this, Degas innumerable paintings of ballerinas are a study of gestures and motions, slices of life, frozen in time.

 A curiosity: In his later years, when Degas began to lose his eyesight, he started an enormous art collection. It included works by past masters and some of his contemporaries. The collection was auctioned in Paris in March 1918, while the city was being bombarded by German long-range artillery, depressing both attendance and prices. John Maynard Keynes, the British economist, was there and bought twenty-seven items on behalf of London’s National Gallery with their advance of £ 20,000. Keynes picked up a Cezanne still-life for himself. £ 327. Not a bad deal.

Selected References
1. Boggs J.S. "Edgar Degas and Naples", in The Burlington Magazine, June, 1963 .
2. Lembo, Francesco. "Renè Hilaire De gas, una Storia tra Napoli e Parigi". Nuovo Monitore Napoletano, 6 Settembre 2020.
3. Pirro, Deirdre. "Edgar Degas and his Italian Family." The Florentine, 25 February 2020.
4. Raimondi, Riccardo.  "Degas e la sua Famiglia in Napoli 1793-1917". Napoli: SAV 1958.
5. Spinillo, Rosa. "Degas a Napoli – Gli Anni Giovanili". Salerno: Plectica, 2004.
6. Valery, Paul. Degas Danse Dessin. New York: Lear, 1948.

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Selene Salvi comments on a similar auction held by Christie's on 23-25 February, 2009, at the Grand Palais in Paris. Lot number 1 included an oil painting on paper by Edgar Degas (14.5 " x 12.5"). It was one of the painter's few landscapes. It was titled “Paysage d'Italie vu par une lucarne” (Landscape of Italy seen from a skylight), dated 1856-1859. Selene says "When Degas painted that, he was in Italy. Very probably it was the view from a skylight at his uncle Hilaire Degas' villa at Capodimonte, villa Paternò a San Rocco. You can see the pier of Sant'Elmo at the upper right and in the distant background on the left you see the Sorrentine peninsula.

We can compare that work with another of Degas' small paintings at the Fitzwilliam Museum (see part 1, above). The website of that museum says that the painting was based on an earlier pencil sketch that Degas had annotated with the closing lines of Canto XIV, of Dante's "Purgatory" from the Divine Comedy:

"The heavens are calling you, and wheel around you,
Displaying to you their eternal beauties,"

These are ancient bits of our countryside that come back to us as a nostalgic reminder of a Naples that is gone.

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