Edgar Degas
(Paris, 1834-1917, Paris)
Before the Start, ca. 1878/80
Oil on canvas, 39.5 x 89 cm
Signed lower left: Degas
Lemoisne 503
Degas wishes to catch the fleeting moment in a picture (and here he is a true Impressionist, though he rejects the label), and thus the "races" and the "dance", his major themes, are most compatible with this aim. Degas was proud to have been the first, even before Manet, to discover race-horses for French art. He begins with racing pictures early in the 1860s, perhaps having been inspired by recollections of a sojourn in England. Around 1870 the first classical versions of this theme appear; it remains important throughout the next two decades, and fades out gradually in the 90s. In contrast to Manet, who represents the race itself, Degas’ interest is always concentrated on the jockeys before the start warming up their horses; what excites him are the varying gaits and foreshortened perspectives of the horses. From the 70s Degas employs the low horizontal shape, as in our picture, which goes back to the Far Eastern painted silk scrolls.