Degas’ Copy after Holbein’s Anne of Cleves (c.1860)

For much of the twentieth century art scholars claimed that Impressionist painting was an accurate copy of what the artist saw en plein air while painting it. When, by the late 1970's, this implausible tale about copying started to unravel, academics from other disciplines took the opportunity to hijack art for their own ends. Interpreting paintings as though they were historical documents, these new scholars used Impressionist images to illustrate their own subject matter, whether it be feminism, Marxism, psychology or social history.1 To do that successfully, though, they remained blind to the visual inconsistencies in their stories, noting only how Impressionism differed from earlier art and not how it remained the same. Yet Edgar Degas famously said: "No art is less spontaneous than mine; what I do is the result of contemplation and study of the great masters." 

Imagining that a "copy" by Degas, like this one after Holbein's Anne of Cleves (left), is just a copy is a similar trap. The word copy suggests that Degas just painted what he saw; it thus stops you from looking, just as Roy Lichtenstein's more recent copies after comic books discourage deeper investigation too. Degas was a great master. If he wanted to copy exactly, he would do so exactly. He did not. There are always differences. If there are differences, then there must be reasons for those differences and they will always be significant.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Degas, Copy after Holbein's Anne of Cleves (c.1860) Oil on canvas. Private Collection.

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The heads by Holbein (left) and Degas (right) are aligned to see how Degas heightened the cap's curve across the forehead so he could inconspicuously lengthen Anne's nose. He then made it more bulbous and the lips fuller, slightly enlarging her eyes.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Holbein, Anne of Cleves (c.1539), a detail. Parchment on canvas. Louvre.
Right: Detail of Degas' Copy after Holbein's Anne of Cleves

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The reasons can be seen in a comparison with Degas' 1855 self-portrait. The additions he made to Anne's face - long nose with circular tip, full lips and larger eyes - are all defining characteristics of his own.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of Degas' Copy after Holbein's Anne of Cleves
Right: Detail of Degas' Self-portrait, also known as Degas in a Green Jacket (1855-6) Oil on canvas. Private Collection.

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I am not alone in seeing this in Degas' oeuvre though no-one has noted it of Anne before. Luzius Keller remarked that Degas' portraits of different people often have similar features and thereby become recognizable as "portraits by Degas." Even though he noted on the same page that Marcel Proust's conception of an artist in A la recherche du temps perdu is that the painter "always depicts himself", he fails to see that aspect in Degas' portraits.2 They are like each other but not like him.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Degas, Copy after Holbein's Anne of Cleves

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Felix Baumann, another specialist, wondered whether Degas' only presumed self-portrait in profile (left) might be a face by another artist fused with his own. "It cannot be ruled out that Degas here overlaid a copy with certain features of his own appearance."3 Baumann was not certain but he should have been.

Degas' use of face fusion ensures that every image so changed becomes an aspect of his mind. In copying Anne, Degas became the feminine creative faculty of Henry VIII, the English king whom Anne was soon to marry. The main reason for the alliance was fertility, to make the king capable of creating the next king. Thus, in Holbein's original she represents Holbein's mind too as I will soon show separately. The unseen king must represent Holbein as well, the great master. Degas knew that and, in using Anne, he claims Holbein's mind, the universal mind of the great master, as his own. Degas, at the time, was 25 and had not yet created a masterpiece.


 

Captions for image(s) above:

Degas, Self-portrait, possibly (c.1854) Pencil on paper. Private Collection.

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Notes:

1. Arnold Hauser began the general trend in 1968 with The Social History of Art arguing that art must be viewed through the specifics of its own time and culture. Among some prominent examples concerning Impressionism are T. J. Clark's The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers (1985) written from a Marxist perspective, the social historian Robert Herbert's Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society (1988) and Linda Nochlin's feminist The Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Art and Society (1989).

2. Keller, "Portraiture between Tradition and Avantgarde: Proust and Degas" in Degas Portraits (Zurich: Kunsthaus) 1994, p.132

3. Felix Baumann, "Degas' Early Self-portraits" in Degas Portraits, op. cit., p.164

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 26 Feb 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.