Edgar Degas
(Paris, 1834-1917, Paris)
Madame Camus at the Piano, 1869
Oil on canvas, 139 x 94 cm
Studio stamp lower right
Lemoisne 207
Blanche Camus, who seems to have just stopped playing the piano for a moment to look at us, was a friend of the artist Edgar Degas. The large format indicates that this painting was meant as a formal portrait. Although seated, she is shown full figure, from head to foot. Valuable furnishings convey a sense of the elegant surroundings in which the sitter lived. The subtle manner in which they are conveyed reveals that the 35-year-old artist planned his composition carefully. This is most clearly evident from the mirror. Glimmering highlights show us that its frame is assembled from pieces of coloured glass. In its bottom left corner the glow of a lamp is reflected. Located outside the picture, this is the light source that causes the porcelain figurine on the piano to cast a shadow on the wall behind Blanche Camus. Degas modelled his approach on that of the classicist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, not long deceased, whom he greatly admired. Going beyond Ingres, however, Degas enlivens his portrait of Madame Camus with lighting effects that reveal a new relationship to visible reality. Coming from a well-off family, Degas did not need to accept portrait commissions for a living, so he was free to portray people from his circle of friends and acquaintances. He did, however, paint the portrait of Madame Camus at the Piano in the hope of exhibiting it at the Paris Salon. In this, at least, he was unsuccessful. The jury's rejection was not wholly unjustified, as a closer look reveals. Neither the left nor the right hand is finished. Although Degas had made studies of both hands in pastel crayon, he did not get around to incorporating them into the painting. Two of these studies are also in the Bührle Collection.