“What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters.”

Edgar Degas

Now let’s be honest, when we think of Edgar Degas (or just simply “Degas,” since all great artists are known by their surnames), we think, ‘Oh – that’s the artist who did all those pretty ballet dancers wearing pretty tutus.’ Thank you, Art Appreciation 101 and Janson’s History of Art.

Thanks as well to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose sizable collection of Degas’s paintings (of ballet dancers, certainly, but not solely) and sculptures is among the most impressive of many of the great museums in the Western world, and has drawn countless visitors to admire his dancers in tulle. Fortunately, however, in its mission to broaden the visitor’s understanding of artists and their works, even the ones we believe to know well, the Met has now on view an exhibition featuring a series of early self-portraits of Degas alongside those of the great Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), whom the young French impressionist greatly admired and in many ways sought to emulate.

Organized by the Rijksmuseum in association with The Met and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, and arranged at the Met by Susan Alyson Stein, curator in the museum’s department of European paintings, Rembrandt and Degas: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is the first exhibition to examine the subject of the self-portrait by Rembrandt and Degas.

This intimate and refreshingly accessible exhibition unites some two dozen self-portraits of these artists, including etchings, oils, and drawings from the Met’s collection, as well as from other museums in the United States and abroad, elegantly engaging the visitor to discover an artistic kinship that reached across centuries and borders.

Practically from the moment when as a youth he picked up a drypoint needle to when he laid it down in old age, Rembrandt cast his gaze incessantly and penetratingly upon his own face. The number of variations on this theme is certainly impressive, but the viewer is taken even more by the range of poses, angles, and personae the Dutch master affected. Although he frequently sought and employed his neighbors and close associates as models in his works, Rembrandt’s best model was Rembrandt.

Consider, for example, an exquisite series of tiny etching portraits Rembrandt produced between 1626 and 1632, such as Self-Portrait Leaning Forward, where the artist seems to emerge from the diminutive framework, his eyes set dead ahead at us. Or the Sheet of Studies with Self-Portrait from 1630-1634, where the master has included his own likeness amongst those of old men, old women, and beggars, figures Rembrandt often favored to represent in many of his etchings and paintings.

And from 1628-1629, there is the riveting oil on panel Self-Portrait as a Young Man, its callow subject’s face partially in shadow; nose, cheek, and neck catch light, and the eyes recede into the darkness. Rembrandt was at the top of his artistic game in this work and literally puts his face into ours, showing off his mastery over the medium through such bravura techniques as incising lines in the then wet paint to emphasize his unruly hair, or to highlight the stubble of his unshaven face.

The star status Rembrandt had enjoyed in youth and middle age waned toward the end of his life and the artistic community would not recognize his genius again until the 19th century. By the 1850s, Rembrandt was again riding a wave of renewed cult-like celebrity, albeit posthumously, and Degas began seeking to establish his own artistic identity. Frustrated with the Beaux-Arts School’s rigid academic approach to art, he dropped out, preferring to explore French and Italian art collections.

Here Degas first encountered Rembrandt’s etchings (an art form the Beaux-Arts rejected) which he studied and copied into his sketchbooks.

Those exercises eventually lead to Degas’s own artistic investigations, particularly the aesthetic potential of repetition, imitative of the Dutch master’s practice of executing more than one “state” or version of a particular etching, producing a series whose nuances, strategies, and interplays of light and shadow became hallmarks of his output.

The Degas selections in the Met’s show clearly attest to the Frenchman’s attention to Rembrandt’s artistic vision. Rembrandt’s Young Man in a Velvet Cap of 1637 is coupled with Degas’s response of 1857, both countenances boldly engaging the viewer’s, both set off with a velvet cap that punctuates their respective personalities.

The 1857 oil on paper, laid down on canvas Self-Portrait of Degas joined with Rembrandt’s work of 1629 stand as one the show’s greatest highpoints. In the Degas, we are met with an informal close-up view of the artist, placed against a dark patch, bringing out an extravagant sideburn. The work is less finished, but more candid in its presentation of the artist in casual attire, his face dressed with his ever-present brooding and doubtful expression. The still-to-be great impressionist’s father, perhaps in response to this work, tried to reassure his son, “My dear Edgar, you have no reason to go on tormenting yourself; you are on the right track. I can understand that you should consult Rembrandt; he is a painter who astounds, one by the depth he is able to achieve, and his palette is not without beauty.”

Ah, but we can fully understand why Degas felt a frisson of doubt when looking at that 1629 oil on panel, painted by a mere 23-year-old, fully in control of his tools, exuding what the Charles Baudelaire declared as a “natural drama.” Rembrandt was the “sturdy idealist, who makes us dream and guess at what lies behind.”

Portrait of the Artist puts the lie to the belief that small is insignificant. This is a highly incisive show, elucidating both the artists’ technique and their respective legacies. By his own choice, and in his desire to be “illustrious and unknown,” Degas’s self-portraits were kept secreted away in his studio until his death, whereas Rembrandt’s works ensured his renown.

We become acquainted as well with the men behind those faces; Rembrandt is the intrepid risk-taker, mugging for the etching plate, the panel, the canvas, seasoning his work with the spice of technical virtuosity. Degas, having rejected academic formality, shows us a consistently cool and steady stare within his self-portraits, but pays homage to his master in his appropriation of the latter’s innovative techniques.

Its quiet coziness and circular configuration make The Lehman Wing well suited to displaying the works in Portrait of the Artist. The careful pairings of the pictures draw attention to the techniques Rembrandt deployed and to their replication in Degas’s hands. In our walk around the Lehman, we are invited to take a different look at two masters who would not immediately inspire comparison, yet who became joined by their genius.

“Rembrandt and Degas: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” is on view from February 23–May 20, 2012 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street), New York, NY 10028. For more information please visit www.metmuseum.org or call 212-535-7710.

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