Degas and Guys

At Foppa’s club, Foppa himself is no less handsomely turned out than Victor Emmanuelle II, but in the finely tailored suit and shoes of an urban dandy.  Foppa is fond of trotting races and the gambling that attends them.  “Hanging behind the bar was a framed photograph of himself, competing in one of these trotting events, armed with a long whip, wearing a jockey cap, his small person almost hidden between the tail of his horse and the giant wheels of the sulky.  The snapshot recalled a design of Degas or Guys.”  [AW 154/146]
To our eyes, Nick’s allusion to Degas and Guys in the same breath seems an uncharacteristic  aesthetic imprecision on Powell’s part here, considering the vast differences in the compositions of those two artists.  Constantine Guys (1802-1892) was a Dutch-born reporter and illustrator, first of military campaigns, and later of fashionable Parisian society.  Baudelaire said of Guys, ” He has gone everywhere in quest of the ephemeral, the fleeting forms of beauty in the life of our day, the characteristic traits of which, with the reader’s permission, we have called ‘modernity.'” (Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life , c.1860)  Insofar as Guys turned his attention to quotidian scenes of the city, he shared an agenda with many of his better-remembered contemporaries, Degas and Manet among them, known now as Impressionists.  But unlike the compositions of those other artists, those of Guys are somewhat slapdash affairs in pen-and-ink and watercolor, notable for their reportorial content, less so for their aesthetic appeal.  Pictured here is Guys’ “Carriage and Three Gentlemen on Horses,”  full of movement and interest,  but none too finely wrought.
Carriage and Three Gentlemen on Horses Constantin Guys, 1860 photo public domain from Wikimedia Commons

Carriage and Three Gentlemen on Horses
Constantin Guys, 1860
ink and wash with watercolor on paper photo public domain from Wikimedia Commons


Edgar Degas (1834-1917) is the universally admired painter of Parisian life, most memorably of the ballet theater and the lives of working women (dancers, laundresses, milliners).  Also among his primary subjects were jockeys, horses and scenes at the races.  These works are thought to be based on photographs Degas himself shot at the races, and they are among the earliest examples we have of such use of photography in painting.  What is so striking about these paintings of Degas is how they introduce us to the aesthetic of the snapshot, where the nominal subjects (famous horses, famous jockeys, the people who massed to see them; cf “The Pharisee”) are displaced or cropped arbitrarily, violating the hierarchical agenda of composition that Degas inherited from Ingres.  What replaces that agenda in Degas’ compositions is our enhanced ability to see arbitrary but beautiful shapes (a horse’s rear end, half a top hat) in dynamic relationships that only the painting can slow us down enough to appreciate.  Consider this reproduction of Degas’ “At the Races” of 1880, now at the Musee d’Orsay.  Nothing slapdash here.
At the Races Edgar Degas, ~1877-1880 oil on canvas, 26 x 32 in Musee d'Orsay, Paris photo in public domain from Wikimedia Commns

At the Races
Edgar Degas, ~1877-1880
oil on canvas, 26 x 32 in
Musee d’Orsay, Paris
photo in public domain from Wikimedia Commons

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s