This essay will revisit key aspects of Degas’s critical reception and elaborate a new professional cohort for him, positioning his exploration of new modes of picture- and object-making in close connection to the work of several illustrious engineers, inventors, and manufacturers with whom he was close. These figures’ careers, I will argue, overlapped in certain important but overlooked respects with Degas’s own, all of which were founded on a primary engagement with materials, construction, and invention.
What did Degas intend by choosing to depict these men, at this location, murkily performing a “clandestine commerce”? Or more precisely what kind of financial transaction are they performing, and with what significance for a beholder of the work at the time? Ultimately, the argument will turn on whether the painting’s representation of their business dealing can be understood without a more precise accounting of its location. It will also hinge on the historical retrieval of the nature and significance of finance capitalism at the moment of the painting’s production in 1879.