Urbanities

David Gelernter
Mrs. Havermeyer’s Legacy: Degas in New York
Autumn 1995

New York never could have emerged as the world capital of art without a great museum to anchor it, and the bequest of a remarkable woman named Louisine Haverneyer went far toward making the city's Metropolitan Museum of Art great. She died in 1929; her bequest was the most magnificent gift the Met ever received. Rich in many ways, the Havemeyer collection was richest of all in the paintings and sculpture of Edgar Degas. Because of Mrs. Haverneyer, the Met today is the best place in the world to see the works of that extraordinary artist.

Degas's greatness is based on principles that would make modern New York shudder. If you were to sweep up and package everything today's fashionable art world hates most, Degas is what you would get. He is an austere technical genius. He cares more about accurate drawing than any thing else. Good art must be built, he believes, on deep knowledge of the masters. He is anti-impressionist in his bones: "I assure you, no art was ever less spontaneous than mine." Like today's fashionable artists, he despises charm and prettiness, but the accord stops there: Degas bans ' sex also. He paints the female nude repeatedly, ruthlessly suppressing any trace of erotic appeal in his models. Forget that flashy gallery opening—for fame, fashion, and self-promotion he has unmitigated contempt. "He was untroubled by ambition, by envy, by any thirst for appearances," writes his younger friend, the poet Paul Valéry. And he is "more impervious to money considerations than anyone in the world." He is the sort of artist, even the sort of person, today's art world is obliged to hate—a right-winger and, for good measure, a bigot and a confirmed misogynist. Many art lovers will tell you that he is also by miles the greatest painter of the nineteenth century.

As for Mrs. Haverneyer, she wrote that "every great advance in art must be supported, and will be, if it is worth being supported." For those of us who feel sick when we contemplate the official avant-garde art establishment of 1995, those are lovely words. It's heartening to remember that all the National Endowments in the world can't suffocate great art, that a single rich woman with good taste can change art history and countermand a million functionaries and trendsetters. Historians sometimes forget how valuable the inspired rich have been to American society. Granted, today's philanthropists make it easy to forget, so many of them being so passionately trendy. But the beauty of private versus public philanthropy is exactly that it can ignore fashionable nonsense and do what is right, with no questions asked, no bureaucrats or congressional staffers to placate. Mrs. Haverneyer didn't collect Degas because the Times or the Whitney of her day or the fashionable dealers or the hot academics told her to. She did it because she could see he was great. She enriched New York immeasurably in the process.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, born 1834, died 1917: a man who not only masters but transcends every technical difficulty in his way; a man who draws (there is no other word for it) perfectly. And his design sense and sheer artistic intelligence are even greater than his commanding virtuosity.

Here is his portrait of a young girl, Hortense Valpinçon, leaning over a table as she eats an apple. Odd pose; that is Degas. The girl is sharp and precise and (maybe like the apple) bracingly acidic. She measures you with an arrogant gaze, which announces that you are worth maybe five seconds of her time; then she'll get back to the apple. She is dressed plainly in black, white, and buff, but a different world sprawls behind her—a luxuriant proto-Matisse world of rich color and overgrown decoration.

A heavy black tablecloth embroidered in reds, blues, greens, and golds; bold needlework overflowing a basket on the table; golden wallpaper with soft orange and velvet gray flowers behind. The sweet-and-sourness is captivating: the vertical, acidic girl amid her lush, sprawling paradise. And then a third element on top of the girl herself. With a narrow brush and dilute brown-black paint, Degas has sketched quick, scratchy lines on perfectly painted Miss Valpinçon. The lines trace the profile of her dress in back, of her blouse and arms in front.

Those lines are the essence of this man's powerfully idiosyncratic artistic vision. He cares above all about line. He repeats often the advice Ingres gave him as a young man: "Study line...draw lots of lines." I always urged my colleagues, he said, to follow "the path of draughtsmanship, which I consider more fruitful than color. But they wouldn't listen to me and have gone the other way." They being the impressionists, of course. For Degas there is nothing more beautiful than a bold true line, and only a small handful of painters have ever drawn lines as well; only Leonardo drew them better.

For most artists, line exists to create three-dimensional form. You sketch lines; you fill in the sketch, and the lines disappear. For Degas, form exists to create line. The perfectly rendered three-dimensional form of the little girl is a manikin to be decked out in beautiful lines. The form holds those lines under tension, balloons them out, makes them hard and taut.

This profound oil of 1871 leaves us with only a single troubling question: what on earth is it doing in Minneapolis?

Luckily, we needn't ask such questions too often; thanks to Mrs. Haverneyer, the Met's Degas holdings are unequaled.

In 1874, Miss Louisine Elder traveled from her Manhattan home on West 21st Street to Paris with her mother and two sisters. "Very nice and very pretty young girls," according to an American art student who lived there. Also very rich: their father had died at 42, but he had been a successful businessman and real estate investor.

Louisine was 19-seven years older than Hortense Valpinçon. Like Miss Valpinçon, she was sensitive, refined, and destined for a lifelong connection to Degas. In Paris, Louisine met the American expatriate painter Mary Cassatt and became her close friend until Cassatt's death in 1926. Mary talked art to Louisine, whose taste and vision developed fast.

Cassatt had just discovered Degas, her lifelong inspiration and artistic guide. In short order she persuaded Louisine to buy a Degas pastel called Ballet Rehearsal for 500 francs, about $100. Louisine thus became Degas's first American patron. Cassatt told her later, Louisine writes, that "Degas had written her a note of thanks when he received the money, saying he was badly in need of it." (In 1965 a Havemeyer grandson resold the work for $410,000.)

Degas was an artistic radical, his compositions dynamic and jarring, with unusual viewing angles, dramatic lighting, and characters clipped off as they drifted casually in and out of the picture. His subjects were radical, too. With painstaking accuracy he painted ordinary men and women—as unusual then as it would be today. "It was so new and strange to me!" Louisine wrote about her first Degas pastel. "I scarce knew how to appreciate it, or whether I liked it or not, for I believe it takes special brain cells to understand Degas." But she came in time to understand him deeply, and to collect him with unswerving intelligence and devotion. Long before her famous bequest, her loans to galleries and museums made her Degas's leading advocate in America.

Degas painted theater scenes, nudes, the racetrack, and the occasional portrait, but above all ballet dancers-especially in rehearsal. Why ballet? "Because, madame," he explained to Louisine, "it is all that is left us of the combined movement of the Greeks." But why rehearsals? Although he didn't say, the answer is plain. An informally dressed dancer moving gracefully amid casual disorder shows raw life submitting to art, chaos transcended. Standing at his easel creating precise masterworks amid the ramshackle craziness of his studio and bachelor quarters, Degas plays the same role, as the rehearsing ballerina. ("Light and dust mingled gaily," Valéry writes of his studio. "The room was pell-mell—with a basin, a dull zinc bathtub, stale bathrobes, a danseuse modeled in wax....") By the same token, Degas is a dedicated writer of sonnets—"of high and original quality," says Valéry. The form forces language to submit to precise, demanding rules.

In 1883, Louisine married Henry Osborne Haverneyer. She was 28, he 35. Divorce was rare, so it is odd that Harry was a divorcé. Odder still, his first wife was Louisine's aunt. Harry's incessant drinking had evidently been too much for the first Mrs. Havemeyer. Louisine married Harry on condition he never drink again, and he kept his promise. (To make these strange matters even stranger, Harry's older sister had married Louisine's uncle, and, by a complex set of family circumstances, it came about that Louisine's own parents had reared Harry from the age of 15.)

H. O. Havemeyer was the Sugar King. His family had refined sugar for two generations; Harry built the family concern into a world-leading business and played an important role in American commercial history.

Louisine explains. "With the Rockefellers, Mr. Havemeyer was a pioneer of the trusts. The sugar trust was formed in 1887 under President Cleveland's administration. My husband was an admirer and warm friend of President Cleveland, and I recall his frequently answering the telephone (then also an innovation) for a long-distance talk with the president." (Cleveland, for his part, refused to hire a secretary and was famous for answering the White House phone himself.) The trusts, Louisine continues, "spread rapidly over the United States, bringing to the front men of intelligence and great business acumen." A well-known Joseph Keppler cartoon of 1889 called "Bosses of the Senate" shows a row of lowering porcine giants—the trusts—standing at the back of the Senate chamber, calling the shots. The sugar trust figures prominently. When she discusses trust-busting President Theodore Roosevelt, Louisine's genial Memoirs turn to ice.

Harry was an art lover when Louisine married him and became an enthusiastic convert to her taste for Degas and other French moderns. An 1886 exhibit staged in New York by the famous French dealer Paul Durand-Ruel caught his interest. Louisine had stayed home with their newborn second child but asked Harry please to pick up a Manet for her. He told her not to count on it—and returned, to her delight, with a still life. It took a few years more for Harry to warm to Degas, but in 1894 he and Louisine bought several pastels and an oil, and thereafter they were confirmed Degas collectors. As the father of two girls, Harry did object to nudes being scattered about the house; Louisine went on buying them but tactfully confined them to her bedroom.

They lived in a brownstone on Manhattan's East 36th Street; later they built a Romanesque mansion on the comer of Fifth Avenue and 66th, with spectacular interiors by Samuel Colman and Louis Comfort Tiffany. (It has long since been demolished.) "Even with a desire to avoid notoriety and lead a quiet life," Louisine writes, "with the come and go of a great city which each year became more and more the rendezvous of the strangers in our land, we met many distinguished people, men of all professions and nearly all the brilliant women of my day." The women included Helen Keller, who impressed everyone with her charm and grace and admired Louisine's sculptures with her hands, and the famous Boston collector Mrs. Jack Gardner.

Mrs. Gardner invited Louisine for a return visit to view her own extensive holdings. "But when the time arrived, she ran true to Gardner form and gave some feeble excuse in order that a competitor not see her works of art." Relations were better with fellow collector Henry Clay Frick, who "built a stately gallery on Fifth Avenue for his treasures," now the Frick Collection; "he entertained lavishly, and during the many years I knew him, I always found him most cordial and friendly."

Harry died at 60 in 1907. Louisine carried on with her active life: she was a prominent suffragette (a "militant suffrage leader," the New York Herald Tribune called her) and remained an aggressive collector. In 1912 she set a record for highest price ever paid for a living artist's work—to acquire a Degas, of course.

Today the Met owns Dancers Practicing at the Bar. Louisine paid 478,500 francs for it, about $98,000; Degas had sold it originally for 500 francs and was not amused. He felt like a horse, he said, who'd just won the Grand Prix and was getting the usual oats for dinner.

The wife of a European museum director reported in the New York Times on a visit to Mrs. Haverneyer toward the end of her life: "Her white hair was combed in a fashion of earlier days. Her deep, rather masculine voice was full of friendliness." When she died at 73 in 1929, her will was found to include three codicils. The first two left a substantial group of paintings and sculptures to the Met, to be known as the H. O. Haverneyer collection. The third directed her son Horace to donate to the museum, in cooperation with his sisters, anything else he thought suitable. The Haverneyer children were as generous as their mother, and the gift came ultimately to 1,972 objects: Rembrandts, El Grecos, Goyas, Veroneses, Manets, Monets—many others, too; and of course, her precious Degas. "There could be no other gift to the museum that could be more important or more welcome," said director Robert de Forest.

Even the rules Louisine established for her collection were a model of generosity: the works could be dispersed throughout the museum wherever they belonged, so long as they remained on permanent display. (Many donors over the years have insisted that museums keep their collections together, rather than allowing their Rembrandts to hang around with ordinary Rembrandts.)

"She was a collector," a European museum director said of Louisine, "who had followed her own vital interests, who was always willing to learn more, who was daring and fearless in her judgment." The critic Royal Cortissoz called her "a collector in whom there glowed the fires of an artist."

Two Dancers is a drawing from the mid-1870s in brown wash and white gouache (gouache is opaque watercolor) on pink paper. The dancers face each other. Degas works quickly and leaves out details; his quick stabs hit exactly again and again: he is a marksman nailing the bull's-eye at 300 feet with his eyes closed. The right dancer's back is curled round as she adjusts her shoulder strap. He has drawn a mere hash of quick brown brushstrokes, but the foreshortening of the back as it curls round and the shoulder as it moves upward is perfect. The profile of her face: a few stabs, also perfect. These virtuoso passages are as thrilling as fast arpeggios in Chopin. You'd expect he would use the white gouache to create highlights and make the dancers come forward into imaginary space; so he has. More important, he has used it to perform his trademark magic trick, turning form into line. White is scribbled in beside the left dancer's waist and raised arm. By pressing right up against her, the whiteness forces your attention onto the line that defines the left side of her body.

Dancer with a Fan is a study for the famous Dancing Lesson of 1880. She is drawn in black, white, and ochre pastel on gray-green paper. The colored paper increases the intensity and energy level of the picture by crowding the dancer from behind: instead of receding vacantly into the distance, the background seems to hang just inches in back of her. To ratchet the energy still higher, Degas backs the girl up to the left side of the sheet. She holds a fan in her right hand, her left arm is curled back to support her neck and maybe massage it, her chin is tipped up—she looks down her nose at us; she is exhausted. The foreshortened face emerges out of a few quick black smudges. We see with perfect clarity the complex, bony structure of her sagging right shoulder. And again, having created a beautiful form, Degas transcends it by using it as the foundation for an even more remarkable line. The ochre pastel makes a few highlights and then withdraws to press against the figure (once again) from the outside, forcing us to see and feel the figure's edge, the form-defining line.

Louisine tells a moving story about Degas's drawings. She and her husband, together with Mary Cassatt, paid him a visit in Paris on the rue Lavalle, and he opened a portfolio. "Degas tenderly lifted the drawings one by one and showed them to us. We could see how greatly he prized them." Harry wished to buy some, "but he seemed reluctant to give them up, unable to part with a single one." Miss Cassatt withdrew one and handed it to the Haverneyers. "It was a superb drawing, and Degas watched us as we admired it. Suddenly, he selected two others, signed them all, and handed them to Mr. Haverneyer. We realized we were the fortunate possessors, not only of his best drawings, but of those he wished us to have."

Harry didn't dawdle over his purchases and wasted no time on trivial details like the price. On another occasion the Haverneyers, with Miss Cassatt again in tow, tracked down a beautiful Degas pastel in "a distant part of Paris." "Timidly," the owner named a high price: $2,000. "'All right, we'll take it,' said Mr. Havemeyer promptly, and the affair was concluded. Ah! how many a picture was bought in the same decided way....

Dancers Pink and Green is a late oil painting of around 1890.

"While we still admire his oils," the critic Alfred Werner wrote in 1968, "we now find them a bit drab compared to his pastels." If that is so, we are making a big mistake. The earlier oils are rarely colorful (although Hortense with her apple certainly is), but they are far too intense ever to qualify as "drab." And some of the late ones are brilliantly colorful. Dancers Pink and Green has pastel-brilliant colors but a softly luminous surface instead of a pastel's complex crumbly-jumbly texture. The five dancers in red tops and luminous aqua tutus are best contemplated with John Updike's lovely comment on a different painting in mind: "This blue-green seems, as it ranges in his work from a soft aqua to an incandescent turquoise, a trace of Degas's soul, the one color he really loved." The lines are thick, fast, and impatient. The dancers' arms have the warm orange shadows of the late pastels. And it happens occasionally in late Degas, as it does here, that you have the impression of viewing a darkish interior with eyes still accustomed to the bright outdoors—when the brilliant after-image you see at first begins to fade, each color takes on its own strange, glowing overlay. Degas's painting seems to emit light in that same fascinating, unsettling way.

Degas, as I have mentioned, was not a nice man. He had "little tenderness for anything," writes Valéry. He was a famous wit, but his wit ran to cruel. Young artists would approach him in awe; he was rarely impressed. Louisine tells of a man who insisted, contrary to advice, that he be introduced to the master. Degas turns to a picture on an easel. "Young man, did you do that?" "Mais oui, monsieur." I pity you," says Degas, and he walks out.

Unfortunately, his judgments are by no means infallible. Of John Singer Sargent: "a skillful painter, but not an artist." "With the advent of the Dreyfus affair," writes Valéry, "he was quite beside himself." He was incensed at Alfred Dreyfus's alleged treason, and refused to revise his opinion even after the frame-up was revealed and Dreyfus was vindicated. He turned his back, Valéry writes, on "very old and intimate friends" over Dreyfus. "We went to invite M. Degas to join us," an acquaintance writes in her diary, 'but we found him so worked up against the Jews that we went our way without asking anything of him."

Of his various bad attitudes, only the ones having to do with women affect his art—and give us a hint, also, of what it must have been like to be Edgar Degas.

His female nudes are utterly without grace or allure. He particularly likes to paint them bathing or toweling dry. "I show them deprived of their airs and affectations," he declares in a famous pronouncement, "reduced to the level of animals cleaning themselves." Someone asks why his women are always so ugly.

"Because," he explains, "women are ugly."

"Women can never forgive me; they hate me, they feel that I am disarming them." "You think they don't like you?" asks a M. Georges Jeanniot, who recorded the conversation. "I am sure of it," Degas answers; "fortunately, for if they did like me, that would be the end of me!"

Such a sad and revealing conversation. Degas is shy, painfully sensitive, quintessentially the artist. Naturally he falls into the habit of bachelorhood. But he is an enormously dignified man. It is essential that people not pity him. What a dignified man fears most is pity. That is why je vous plains, I pity you, is exactly what Degas says when he wishes to be as mean as possible.

So he makes it clear that he dislikes women and wants nothing to do with them. He is lucky that women don't like him; if they did, "that would be the end of me!" And when he immerses himself rather late in life in his nude studies, he needs again to insure himself against pity at all costs. It is sad to paint lovely women but have none of your own, to admire their bodies only when you are paying them to pose for you.

His dignity demands that his nudes be unlovely.

The reality of his banked feelings escapes like a wisp of smoke only once (so far as I know) in all Degas' work, in a remarkable chalk drawing of 1883. It is a profile of Hortense Valpinçon, now 21 and shortly to be married. Her hair is drawn back in a bun that doesn't quite fit Degas' page and escapes off the right edge. The drawing is in the Met but is not part of Louisine's bequest. Again, Hortense eluded her.

Valpinçon père and Degas had been school friends, and for much of his life Degas visited the Valpinçon estate at Ménil-Hubert in Normandy nearly every year. He used the informal tu with three men only, outside his own family; Paul Valpinçon was one. (One of the others was Ludovic Halévy, whom he cut after the Dreyfus affair.)

The wistful, melancholy beauty of this wonderful portrait of Hortense is the more remarkable for its rarity in Degas's work. Gentle, wistful: ordinarily Degas has no truck with anything of the sort. But this drawing is an involuntary sigh. It calls to mind the last movement of Beethoven's Tempest Sonata—another startling moment, almost unique for Beethoven's music in its gentle yearning. Such a depth of love for Hortense. Degas presented the drawing to her 25 years after it was completed. He had kept it in his bedroom.

A few days before Degas's death, a friend visited the lonely, senile, nearly blind old man. "I found him seated in an armchair, draped in a generous bathrobe, with that air of the dreamer we have always known."

Gifts by rich people to public institutions are a topic we rarely get choked up about. After all, those rich families (we tend to figure) are still rich after they have made their gifts, and what they lose in possessions they gain back in public esteem. A reasonable if ungenerous assessment. But it doesn't hurt to remember that rich donors are merely human beings attempting to do some good. And it's fitting that we pause every now and then to consider how much good some of them have done for New York City.

Enfin, this is a personal reminiscence; I am personally indebted to Louisine Havemeyer. I am a painter, fortunate enough to have grown up near Manhattan. I sketched Degas's paintings in the Met repeatedly as I grew up, as hundreds or maybe thousands of other aspiring painters have done.

Louisine Havemeyer was an essential part of my education. Multiply my story by the appropriate tens of thousands, and you have an act of generosity that deserves to be remembered and praised in every art-loving generation.

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