Degas’ Rocks and Trees at Bagnoles-de-l’Ornec (1867)

Theodore Reff once wrote a paper titled "Degas' Pictures within Pictures" by which he meant framed paintings and mirrors hanging in the background of Degas' paintings. He was right that Degas' internal images are not meaningless but an essential part of his conception, some with a reference to art itself.1 What he did not recognize - as no other scholar has either - is that Degas' images are almost always full of other images, often his own self-portrait. I have already shown that to be the case in two early works, his ostensible portrait of Edouard Manet at the Races (c.1865) and his At the Races in the Countryside (1869). There are dozens more unpublished.

Here, for example, is a landscape. Degas, one of the few Impressionists not known for that genre, executed several in pastel or watercolor. In this one, known as Rocks and Trees at Bagnoles-de-l'Ornec, Degas included mental images of his own face in the rocks several times over. The nature of such an image is that it is not seen through one-point persepective, as external images generally are, but distorted from multiple viewpoints even among the parts of a single face. The mind, scientists surmise, needs to recognize an acquaintance from any viewpoint so holds the salient features in memory in multiple perspectives. Those consciously aware of mental images - and very few are - have long known this as written statements by both Mozart and Beethoven confirm.2

Click next thumbnail to continue
 

Captions for image(s) above:

Degas, Rocks and Trees at Bagnoles-de-l'Ornec (1867) Watercolor on paper. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Click image to enlarge.

Rocks, of course, had also been representative of the mind since at least the early Reniassance.3 Here Degas, like the then still-unknown cave artists of the Neolithic era, takes advantage of the natural shape of the rock-face (note an age-old metaphor) to form his features not just two-dimensionally but with shading and depth as well.4 

Click next thumbnail to continue
 

Captions for image(s) above:

Diagrammatic detail of Degas' Rocks and Trees at Bagnoles-de-l'Ornec

Click image to enlarge.

The identifying features of Degas' face that he used repetitively are the length and/or curvature of his nose and his large bulbous lips with a prominent philtrum. His nose in the "face" at far left even looks phallic, a probable and very traditional reference to the fertility of his mind. 

Click next thumbnail to continue
 

Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of Degas' Rocks and Trees at Bagnoles-de-l'Ornec
Center: Diagram of detail
Right: Detail of Degas' Self-portrait with a Palette (1854) Oil on paper, mounted on linen. Private Collection.

Click image to enlarge.

This diagram shows a third "face" (in black) but there are more, smaller ones as well. The prior one is here shown in red. Degas, of course, like other Impressionists, is known for his "accurate" observation of the motif. Clearly this is a mis-perception of such importance that it totally distorts our understanding of his art.

A dark shape in the rock (in green at left) above the eyes of this third "face", and thus located in its "mind", is also phallic-shaped like the nose at far left.

Click next thumbnail to continue
 

Captions for image(s) above:

Diagrammatic detail of Degas' Rocks and Trees at Bagnoles-de-l'Ornec

Click image to enlarge.

Like many other poetic artists (and I doubt there is another type) Degas represented his mind's interior in such a way that the ordinary art-viewing public thought he was representing the exterior world. That has been a source of such confusion that it mirrors (intentionally) our own confused view of reality. Our minds, for instance, tend to think we stand outside nature when, in truth, we stand within it. Degas' representations then, like so much other art, are not really inside-out but outside-in.  That is also why Calloway in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby narrates, "I was within and without."5

 

Captions for image(s) above:

Degas, Rocks and Trees at Bagnoles-de-l'Ornec (1867) Watercolor on paper. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Click image to enlarge.

Notes:

1. Reff, "Degas' Pictures within Pictures", Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 1, 1968, pp. 125-166, esp. pp. 127-8

2. “Mozart: A Letter” in Brewster Ghiselin, The Creative Process (New York: The New American Library) 1952, p.45; Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations, ed. M. Hamburger (New York: Pantheon Books) 1952, p. 195, cited in Albert Rothenberg, “Homospatial Thinking in Creativity”, Archives of General Psychiatry 33, 1976, p.20. See also my blog entry "Cubism Explained" for a more detailed explanation of the nature of mental images. 

3. I have already shown how Leonardo and Filippo Lippi used rock for that purpose. Michelangelo will be added to the list shortly. 

4. Neolithic artists used natural folds in the rock, as well as cracks and steps in the rock-wall, to provide a natural 3-dimensional outline of an animal's body. David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave (London: Thames & Hudson) 2002, p. 28

5. Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Chapter 2.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 10 Jun 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.