Socialist Worker

Edgar Degas’s contradictions and shock value

by Charlie Kimber
Issue No. 2586

Jockeys in the Rain

Jockeys in the Rain (Edgar Degas, 1886)

An exhibition of drawings by Edgar Degas (1834-1917) is an excellent introduction to the work of one of the most influential artists of the 19th century.

It features a series of his drawings of the ballet, women bathing, horse racing and other themes.

These fragile objects (often drawn on tracing paper) have the most brilliant combination of classical drawing and revolutionary use of colours and new techniques.

His ballet dancers are caught in strenuous movement or exhaustion.

Degas wanted to show them “cracking their joints”, the sweat and the pain.

A group of women in a laundry are seen as doing hard physical work.

Degas was born into a well-off family of bankers but trained as an artist from a young age.


He became a leading figure in the group known as the Impressionists (although Degas preferred to call himself a Realist or Independent).

Degas was an antisemite, made misogynistic comments, and his depiction of women is contradictory. Some have criticised his drawing as intrusive or revelling in vulnerability.

But it’s also true that the subjects are not served up in a way that suggests they should be gazed at. The exhibition includes Woman Looking Through Field Glasses, who looks directly at us in the most assertive way—an artistic shock for the time.

Unlike so many, this exhibition is free. See it if you can.

Degas from the Burrell at the National Gallery, London, until 7 May. Free.

For more information go to

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Tue 9 Jan 2018, 10:13 GMT
Issue No. 2586
Share this article

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.