It is only fair to preface anything you write about Degas with a few of his own remarks. He challenges you to prove relevance and competence. He wanted to be 'illustrious and unknown', and wrong-foots biographers by making their curiosity seem prurient or irrelevant. He thought most writing about art ignorant and unnecessary: 'I have spoken to the most intelligent people about art,' he said to George Moore, 'and they have not understood ... but among people who understand words are not necessary: you say humph, he, ha, and everything has been said.' Critics not only rush in where there is nothing to be said, what they do say is glib: 'Painting is not difficult when you do not know anything about it. But when you know, oh, it's something quite different.' Biographers have no easy task. There is plenty of material: notebooks, letters - which have some of the combative quality of his table talk. But he was a difficult man, in whose life protective colouring and character are hard to distinguish. In a notebook he kept in his twenties he wrote: 'The heart is an instrument which rusts if it is not used. Without a heart can one be an artist?'
LRB 4 July 1985 | PDF Download