Degas’ At the Races in the Countryside (1869)

In the late 1860's Degas depicted a family at the races in a scene said to have been influenced by his study of English pictures. A father looks down from the driver's seat of a coach at his wife, infant and a wet-nurse who has bared her breast to feed the child. It is an unusual scene with a focus on breasts and fertility.

Scholars have cited various identities for the man without noting his resemblance to Edouard Manet. Degas had already made various sketches of Manet attending the races, one of which I have shown includes Degas' face disguised in Manet's hand.1 Note here how the whip the man holds recalls a paintbrush, its tip flecked with white paint to "color" the sky (lower left). In the most disguised of four fertility references Degas shaped Manet's jacket into a large breast with a button-nipple (diagram lower right). The man, androgynous, must therefore be an artist.2

Click next thumbnail to continue
 

Captions for image(s) above:

Degas, At the Races in the Countryside (1869) Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Below: Detail of image and diagram

Click image to enlarge.

Manet had red hair and a similar hooked nose (lower images, from a deathbed photo and a self-portrait).3 This, together with the references to English art cited by other writers, suggests the pregnant bitch might be a fusion of William Hogarth's famous pug (top right) and Courbet's Self-portrait with a Black Dog of 1841 (not illustrated), a nod to the Anglo-French influences on Degas' art. Courbet and Manet were his immediate predecessors as French great masters; Hogarth, as England's first great master, represents that tradition too.

Click next thumbnail to continue
 

Captions for image(s) above:

Top L: Detail of Degas' At the Races....
Top R: Detail of Hogarth's The Painter with His Pug (1745) Oil on canvas. Tate Britain, London.
Lower L: Detail of a photograph of Manet on his deathbed, rotated. Photographer unknown.
Lower R: Detail, inverted, of Manet's Self-portrait (1878-9) Oil on canvas. Collection of Steven A. Cohen, Greenwich, Connecticut, USA

Click image to enlarge.

If the man is primarily "Manet", then the white M-shaped mark on the horse's back (top) might be significant too, similar to the M-form Manet used behind the toreador's back to identify Mlle V as a self-representation in 1862 (lower left) and that Picasso then re-used a century later to identify with Manet (lower right) as I have already discussed.4

Click next thumbnail to continue



 

Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Detail of Degas' At the Races in the Countryside
Lower left: Diagram of Manet's Mlle V in the Costume of an Espada (1862), oil on canvas, and Picasso's Self-portrait and Circus Figures from Suite 347 (1968) Etching.

Click image to enlarge.

Fragmented portraits are so little known that many may have trouble seeing Degas' distorted "face" appear in the doorway of the carriage.5 Follow the diagrams at left as I describe it. The nurse's right hand descends next to an eye-shaped form in her dress (white circles) with a diagonal highlight, above and to its left, like that over the artist's eye in the self-portrait. An artist's hand and "eye" are linked. Below, almost invisibly, Degas brushed in the form of his prominent mouth (black contour) white on white and his square chin below that (red line). His other "eye" with its brown pupil  is her bared breast with its brown nipple (blue circles), the fourth reference to fertility.6 The infant's heel suggests the approximate placement of Degas' "nose". If still doubtful, please hold judgment a while longer.

Click next thumbnail to continue
 

Captions for image(s) above:

Top L: Detail of Degas' At the Races...(1869)
Top R: Detail of Degas' Self-portrait (1855) 
Lower L & R: Diagrams of images above

Click image to enlarge.

Loyrette incorrectly identified the carriage as a 2-wheeled Tilbury when it is, most significantly, a Phaeton named after the child of the sun god with whom artists, challenging the powers of light, often identify.7 In placing his "portrait" in the Phaeton's doorway Degas suggests his mind straddles two realities. This explains why his "portrait" is so diffused. Mental images, as science now believes, are fractured and amorphous.8 The horses pulling the Phaeton are traditional symbols of the senses controlling the mind (the Phaeton). The foreground horses might also refer to an easel because, as I note elsewhere, easels in French are equine, chevalet.9 

See conclusion below
 

Captions for image(s) above:

Degas, At the Races in the Countryside (1869)

Click image to enlarge.

Other writers have criticized Degas for his "small errors in perspective" in placing the horses and figures in the background.10 As with Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe (1863) and in so many other works by other artists including Courbet, Degas' figures are out-of-scale on purpose: they are his "paintings", metamorphoses of his own mind, fused with the scene and hanging on the rear "wall" of his painting. That is why his own face appears veiled, yet again, in the background but that is a story for another day.

For other examples of veiled self-portraits similar to Degas' here, see entries under the theme Veiled Faces. As I mention above Degas' sketches of Manet at the races also include similar, veiled self-portraits as can be seen in Degas' Edouard Manet at the Races (c.1865). 


 

Notes:

1. Degas' Edouard Manet at the Races (c.1865).

2. In theory an "androgynous" man could represent Christ, a saint, a prophet, poet or artist. The latter, of course, seems more likely here.  In all cases, though, the disguised reference is likely to imply the hidden unity of the human mind. We all have androgynous minds, buried beneath our experience of ego-favoring consciousness; however, only those like great masters realize their androgyny, bringing that hidden unity to the fore.

3. Henri Loyrette in the catalogue of a major exhibition on Degas discussed two possibilities for the man's identity suggested by earlier scholars before declaring that he "is surely Degas' friend from his childhood days, Paul Valpinçon." Paul had red hair like this man but his nose in Degas' other portraits of him is perfectly straight, not hooked. Besides Loyrette's rationale is circular. He mentions that the Valpinçon's only son was born in January 1869 and that Degas visited the family that summer, leading to the conclusion that the painting should be dated 1869. He then implies that the date of the painting (which he just chose) supports his identification. He rejects a date proposed by Lemoisne, 1872, in large part because the child "can be none other than the Valpinçon's only son..." adding "everything fits perfectly." See "At the Races in the Countryside" in Degas (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art) 1988, p. 157. Few portraits of Manet show a hooked nose because he posed himself frontally in self-portraits and Degas gave Manet some of his own features including a concave nose on several occasions.

4. See the blog, "Memory Holloway and Picasso". (December 2012)

5. See examples by many other artists under the theme Veiled Faces.

6. The four fertility references are the wet-nurse's bared breast feeding the child, its hidden function as the artist's eye in the disguised portrait, the pregnant pug with its swollen tits and the "breast" on Manet's jacket. Cézanne once gave himself a disguised breast, quite similar to Degas' here, in Self-Portrait with a Beret (1899).

7. Phaeton, of course, tried to ride his father's chariot across the sky pulling the sun behind it but, not being divine, crashed to earth. Frederick Hartt is one of many scholars to have suggested that Michelangelo identified with Phaeton "who dared to assume the luminary powers of divinity."  Catalogue # 358, "The Fall of Phaeton" in Hartt, The Drawings of Michelangelo (London: Thames & Hudson) 1971, p. 251. This type of play-on-words, using a Phaeton horse-carriage to imply the divinity, is another little-known but common feature in art. I have shown similar instances in, for example, Caravaggio's Rest on the Flight into Egypt (c.1597), Rembrandt's Stoning of St. Stephen (1625), Manet's Little Cavaliers (1861), Manet's Young Lady of 1866 (1866), John Sloan's Rider in the Subway (1926), Roy Lichtenstein's Man with a Coat (1961). 

8. See Abrahams, "Cubism Explained" (published online, Oct. 2011)

9. See Velazquez's Count-Duke Olivares on Horseback (c.1635-6)

10. Degas, op. cit., p. 158

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 23 Mar 2013. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.