Degas is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, figure painter of all time.
His greatness does not lie in his mastery of the human figure, but in the colour, texture and energy of his work.
For colour, says John Ruskin, is the type of love.
When we look with love our experience of colour is enhanced. It is easy to tell the difference between a dry academic and a passionate lover by their approach to colour. And it is not bright colour that is loving colour; it is subtle colour.
Who but the most tender can hope to paint a blush?
So, too, texture is not indicative of sensuality, texture is sensuality; and energy is inseparable from passion.
Modern commentators have portrayed Degas as a woman hater. Let those who believe words, believe that if they like. As for me, I have always been intrigued by the absorbing question of whether Mary Cassatt and Degas were lovers.
There is not much direct evidence either way, but the intimate way in which he painted her at simple activities, is to me, conclusive. They may not have been lovers, but Degas loved her.
They separated, Cassatt went back to Boston, Degas stayed in Paris.
Neither of them married, neither of them had any children.
In spite of this, both of them created the most loving, longing images of children. Cassatt's pictures of mother and child subjects are well known, but where can we find such evidence in Degas' work? In the most well known; the most beautiful image of a child ever produced, which somehow we have never acknowledged as a child: the "Petite Danseuse de14 ans".
Even the title emphasises the youth of the young girl.
Colour is the expression of love, and this sculpture is obviously a statement of form, not of colour. But not for Degas. This sculpture remained in his studio until his death in glorious loving colour. Every night when the old man, nearly blind and utterly alone, went to bed, there was the lovely uptuned face, with its rosy young mouth chastely offered for a goodnight kiss.
It was the recipients of his will, probably the management of the Louvre, who cast it into bronze and sold copies to some of the world's major Art Museums, and killed the colour. (It comes as a sudden shock to me that Greek sculpture too, was tinted.)
The story has a beautiful ending. When Cassatt in Boston, having denied any romantic feelings for Degas, heard that the old man was dying, she wrote to her friends in Paris, "Please make sure that there is a woman with him when he dies."
And so it was. The young woman who was employed to be with him, as she opened the curtains that one morning, heard him ask her to stay like that, like a model in front of the bright window, arm upraised to push back the curtain. "The light, the light...", he said, and died.
Goodnight, monsieur Degas.