The Making of Degas: Duranty, Technology, and the Meaning of Materials in Later Nineteenth-Century Paris
Degas lived among his model, his canvases, and a strange jumble of bottles, colored powders, scrapers, brushes, and turpentine that he used to compose his pictures, which leave the specialists who study them today perplexed, unable to untangle the proportion of lithography, pastel, gouache, or oil mixed up on the paper… He was always inventing.
Daniel Halévy, the son of one of Edgar Degas’s best friends who was also close to the artist, put forth a particularly vivid characterization of the artist’s incessant experimentation with diverse artistic media and materials in the passage quoted above.1 But the observation that Degas’s work was grounded in material and technical innovation is not at all unique to Halévy, having been made repeatedly by friends, colleagues, and critics during the artist’s lifetime. Despite the long-standing acknowledgement of Degas’s interest in new materials and techniques, however, there is still a great deal left to understand about his wide-ranging investigation of various media, supports, and processes and its central place in the meaning of his oeuvre. In this essay, I want to begin to situate a concern with matter, making, and experimentation as foundational to Degas’s body of work, and I’ll do so by providing new frameworks for understanding his sustained commitment to material and technical innovation. More specifically, 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.
In this recontextualization of Degas’s work and practice, it seems only fitting to re-evaluate the work of the writer who has had the greatest influence on how the artist’s production has been interpreted. Edmond Duranty first began writing about Degas’s work in the late 1860s, but it was his pamphlet La Nouvelle Peinture, published in 1876 in conjunction with the second Impressionist exhibition, that would have the most significant impact of any text on the artist’s reception.2 In that essay, Duranty interpreted Degas’s work (without actually naming him) in terms of the perceived transparency of the represented figures and settings to certain socio-economic realities of class, status, and occupation. Though his analysis of Degas’s work was relatively brief, La Nouvelle Peinture has nevertheless had a uniquely powerful role in shaping later art historical accounts of the artist’s interests.3 Here, I’d like to loosen the hold of Duranty’s 1876 text on our understanding of Degas’s work by drawing attention to another rarely discussed text by him that could shed important light on the artist’s attitudes about materials and techniques. In 1870, Duranty published an essay titled “L’Outillage dans l’art” (“The Tools of Art”), in which he argues for the fundamental importance of material and technical experimentation to artistic advancement, an attitude that Degas very much seemed to share.4 Duranty’s central claim is that, throughout the history of art, pivotal artistic achievements have been primarily driven by changes in artists’ tools, materials, and techniques. The author’s main thesis is conveyed in the opening lines of the text, which read: “Is it possible that the artist depends on his instruments and his art on his tools? I believe so. This might destroy the too deeply rooted belief that we have certain mysterious flowerings of great men, who dazzle us in some epochs. Too bad for overly ideal inclinations.” A few sentences later, he asserts unequivocally that “man is very much … a slave to his material situation, to his material discoveries.” Duranty goes on to argue not only that essential developments in the history of art were the result of material and technical discoveries, but also that particular materials and techniques are specific to certain historical periods and, thus, the development of modern art requires specifically modern equipment. “Today perhaps we are on the path to a change in the appearance of art, but those who feel drawn to it at the same time feel hindered by the tools. They would like other colors, they would like other instruments besides brushes. They tried the knife, they would try a spoon if it lent itself to it. I do not pretend to establish that equipment is the unique cause of developments in the arts … but it is the dominant cause.”5
Could Degas have known about Duranty’s 1870 essay? A range of evidence suggests that it is certainly possible. Though their close friendship by the end of the decade has been firmly established—evidenced not only by Duranty’s 1876 essay but also, of course, by Degas’s 1879 portrait of the critic (fig. 1), and by the fact that Degas was one of two executors of Duranty’s will when the writer died in 1880—it seems that the two were close by 1870, if not earlier. In addition to both men having frequented the Café Guerbois starting in the mid-1860s, an undated letter likely written in 1869 or 1870 by Degas to Duranty, in which the former asks for a personal favor and twice refers to the recipient as “mon cher Duranty,” testifies that their friendship had developed by then. Lastly, just a few months before “L’Outillage dans l’art” was published in Paris-Journal in July of 1870, an open letter to the Salon jury written by Degas appeared in the very same journal (one that Degas likely alludes to in his 1869/70 letter). The introduction to Degas’s open letter, which referred to him as “an artist of much merit,” was written by none other than Duranty.6 Though we can’t know for certain if Degas read Duranty’s 1870 essay, the two were clearly on close terms by that point, and the ideas contained therein might well have been exchanged between them. Irrespective, though, of whether or not Degas was familiar with this particular text, the very fact that someone close to the artist wrote at length about the central role of material and technical experimentation to artistic innovation and about the historical specificity of artists’ materials and techniques makes clear that such ideas were in circulation in Degas’s circle. His body of work, and the decades he spent investigating various media and new modes of making, imply that Degas saw the significance of experimentation with materials and tools in much the same light as Duranty. Though no nineteenth-century artists are even mentioned in “L’Outillage dans l’art,” this text can nevertheless offer us as much or more insight into Degas’s work than many of the critical assessments that did explicitly address his production. Duranty’s earlier essay can and should spur us not only to more closely consider the artist’s sustained commitment to experimentation with materials and processes but to view it, in some sense, as fundamental to his entire project.
The importance placed by Duranty on technical invention in art closely coincides with how some of Degas’s contemporaries understood his interests. For example, in a review of the 1879 Impressionist exhibition, art historian and critic Henry Havard wrote the following:
A writer who could not be suspected of having negative feelings towards the heads of the new school, describes their work as “laborious trials that resemble the experiments of the chemist and the physicist.” It seems difficult to find a finer, more sensible, and above all more appropriate criticism. Indeed, one could not make a better comparison between laboratory tests and this restless research into new procedures, these mixtures of distemper and pastel, these attempts at peinture à l’essence, these combinations of multi-colored frames… As for M. Degas, he is a man of infinite spirit and what’s more is a talented artist, but it is to him above all that the reproach of chemistry is directed. His brain seems to be a furnace where a new painting still in the process of being born is bubbling… He seems to be in pursuit of a poorly defined ideal, whose formula he hopes to find in unexpected combinations of frames, pastels, distemper, and essence.7
Not only does Havard situate experimentation at the core of Degas’s production, but he foregrounds the artist’s engagement with new combinations of diverse media as central to that experimentation, very much as Halévy does in the passage that opened this essay. Both Havard and Halévy, among others, recognized an abiding commitment on Degas’s part to the innovative use of techniques and materials, thereby directly aligning his work with the perspective put forward by Duranty in his 1870 text. Degas’s letters and notebooks also reveal a decades-long fascination with the matter of art, that is, with the properties of and interactions between various media, tools, and supports. One of the most concise expressions of the artist’s near career-long commitment to material and technical experimentation is his well-known proclamation to Ambroise Vollard late in his career: “Happily for me, I have not found my method. That would only bore me!”8
Degas’s sustained engagement with matters of construction and materials was one he shared with several of his close friends, relationships that have thus far either been largely ignored or treated as being of purely biographical interest. And here I offer a second reframing of Degas, elaborating a social and professional cohort for him that helps us make fuller sense of his long-standing focus on material and technical exploration. While it has long been known that Degas was not close to most of the main figures of the Impressionist circle, the questions of who he did surround himself with and, more importantly, the potential significance of these relationships for his work, deserve closer scrutiny than they have thus far received.9 Degas’s portraits and surviving letters, as well as certain accounts of those who knew him well, offer invaluable insight into some of his friendships and the nature of his connections with various figures. These pictures, letters, memoirs, and reminiscences not only bring to light friendships with illustrious engineers, inventors, and manufacturers that we might otherwise not have known much about or might not have understood in nearly as much depth, but they also reveal the diverse spheres of innovation and invention that engaged Degas. These relationships had a great deal to do with the kind of maker and innovator that he aimed to be, and it is in relation to these friends’ work that Degas partially saw his own artistic production.10
One of the earliest pictorial statements of Degas’s close affiliation with inventors and constructors is his 1871 portrait of three men with whom he served in the National Guard in Paris during the Franco-Prussian war (fig. 2). Painted shortly after the war’s end, the artist wrote “mars 1871” (“March 1871”) under his signature in the upper left corner of the canvas, the temporal specificity of the inscription giving the work the feeling of a personal memento. While very little is known about the figure in the center, P. Linet, the men on either side of him were both engineers and manufacturers. Edouard Lainé, the figure on the right, was an engineer who was the director of a major metal foundry and metal parts factory. Seated on the left is Charles Jeantaud, with whom Degas was certainly the closest of the three men depicted. The artist not only chose to give the triple portrait to Jeantaud but, in the mid- and later 1870s, he painted at least two portraits of Jeantaud’s wife, proving that their friendship long outlasted their time together in the National Guard.11 Jeantaud was an extremely important engineer and carriage maker, dubbed “the father of the electric car” for his enormous contributions to the development of early electric vehicles.12 In 1881, he invented the first carriage powered by electricity (fig. 3), and numerous patents that he took out in the 1870s, precisely the period for which there is evidence that he and Degas were close (though there is no reason to believe their friendship was limited to that decade), attest to his early research on vehicle and motor design and manufacturing. To give just one example, a steering mechanism refinement that he developed in the second half of the 1870s proved crucial to subsequent vehicle steering technology.13 From that time until his death in 1906, Jeantaud was one of the foremost figures in the design, development, and promotion of early electric vehicles in France, work that ranged from carrying out research on electric batteries to developing an electric taxicab service in Paris to participating in renowned, long-distance automobile races. He was also one of the most well-known carriage and automobile body manufacturers of his time, building electric automobiles for royalty and other wealthy clientele throughout Europe.
Alfred Niaudet was another acclaimed inventor and fabricator with whom Degas was close, but whose relationship with the artist has been little-discussed in most of the Degas literature. Indeed, the two were almost life-long friends, becoming close as students at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and remaining so until Niaudet’s death in 1883.14 Alfred came from the highly illustrious Breguet family, renowned throughout Europe since the eighteenth century first as watchmakers, then as makers of telecommunications equipment and various other kinds of scientific and precision instruments. Alfred Niaudet, his two sisters, and his mother moved into the Breguet home on the Ile de la Cité (the famous workshop was located on the building’s upper floors, fig. 4) when he was a young boy after his father had left the family, and he was raised as a Breguet (in fact, he would later go on to publish some of his writings under the name Niaudet-Breguet). During Degas’s years at the Lycée, he was a regular visitor to the Breguet home, and he apparently took great pleasure in spending time with the distinguished scientists, instrument makers, and other accomplished friends of the family. So close did he become to the Niaudet-Breguet clan that Jean-Pierre Halévy later referred to them as “the first of Degas’s adopted families” and made a point of highlighting Degas’s keen interest in the engineers, scientists, and inventors that he met in their home: “When one knows the taste that Degas had for practical intelligence, the friendship that he will later establish with Rouart and his engineer friends, one can guess the happiness he found with the Breguets and their friends.”15 It is in the Breguet home that Degas met Alfred’s cousin Louise, and it is likely through her that Degas became friends with Ludovic Halévy, whom Louise married in 1868 and who would become one of Degas’s most intimate friends. Degas and Louise remained extremely close throughout their lives, her son describing their relationship as “almost familial” and “quasi-fraternal.”16 Degas was also very close with Alfred’s sister Sophie for much of their lives, and Degas’s sisters were good friends with Alfred’s sisters. In sum, the artist was intimately linked in multiple ways to the Niaudet-Breguet family for almost his entire life, relationships based not only on personal affection but also, according to the account of Halévy quoted above and those of other friends, on shared intellectual and professional commitments.
Within a few years of leaving the Lycée, Niaudet began working for the Breguet firm and, over the course of the next three decades, he made major contributions to the fields of electromechanics, telecommunications, and precision instruments. His numerous accomplishments include, among many others, inventing an electrical generator and an electric battery, introducing the Gramme machine to France, inventing the first tuning-fork-controlled clock, and publishing then-definitive works in some of these areas. In 1877, Degas painted a little-discussed and rarely reproduced portrait of his friend (fig. 5). It features Niaudet wearing a pocket watch, a detail that recalls the family’s illustrious history as watchmakers and, thus, a subtle allusion to the achievements and inventions of the sitter, his family, and his firm. To illuminate just one facet of Niaudet’s many contributions to the history of technology and telecommunications, the same year Degas painted his portrait, Niaudet traveled to England to meet Alexander Graham Bell in order to propose manufacturing and publicizing his newly invented telephone in France. At the conclusion of that meeting, Bell, in Niaudet’s own words, “entrusted me with the first two telephones to touch the European continent,” and the Breguet firm became the only French licensed manufacturer of Bell telephones (fig. 6).17 Alfred died at a young age in 1883, and his passing was mourned in scientific and technical journals on both sides of the Atlantic. His obituary in La Nature, for example, read: “Science and Industry just lost, in the person of M. Alfred Niaudet, one of their most dedicated and most eminent servants. Member of the Société française de physique since its founding, collaborator with the Breguet firm for many years, whose strong scientific tradition he helped to maintain, manager of the Société générale des Téléphones, the Compagnie électrique, and of the Société l’Éclairage électrique, President of the Compagnie internationale des Téléphones, M. Niaudet, more than anyone, contributed to developing the industries linked with electricity in France.” Another publication lamented that “the loss that electrical science has sustained in the death of Alfred Niaudet is great, and will be felt far beyond the shores of his own country.”18 But Alfred’s death did not mark the end of Degas’s relationship with his family, as reflected, in part, by the many photographs that Degas took of them during his relatively brief period as a photographer around 1895. Indeed, his closeness with the Niaudet-Breguet-Halévys lasted until nearly the end of his own life. Through his decades-long relationship with the family, Degas was linked to a world of illustrious French inventors, scientists, and makers of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For example, Alfred’s sister Sophie, who was nearly a surrogate sister to Degas, was married to the chemist Marcellin Berthelot, one of the most famous French scientists of his time. Berthelot was bestowed the high honor of being buried in the Pantheon, and Sophie was buried next to him, making her the first woman ever accorded a Pantheon burial.19 Degas’s connections to the Niaudet-Breguet family typically receive only passing mention, if that, in the existing scholarly literature on the artist.20 In no place is Alfred’s remarkable work and career, nor the many contributions of the Breguet firm to the histories of electromechanics, telecommunications, and instrument making analyzed, much less understood in relation to Degas’s own pursuits. But accounts from those who knew Degas well clearly indicate that the artist was deeply interested in the activities and accomplishments of the Niaudets-Breguets and their circle. The surviving traces of the friendship between Niaudet and Degas are visible only if one looks closely, but this relative scarcity of evidence belies the two men’s intimacy. Outside of his family, Degas addressed only four people that we know of with the informal “tu,” and one of them was Niaudet.21
In this group of engineers, inventors, and fabricators who were part of Degas’s circle of friends, I would include Michel Manzi, an Italian who moved to Paris in the early 1880s and with whom Degas became very close over the subsequent years. Long before he came to Paris, Manzi developed an expertise in the mechanical reproduction technology of typogravure (often referred to at the time as typography). The literature on Degas usually describes Manzi as an artist and publisher but, during his lifetime, he was sometimes referred to as an engineer (usually of image reproductions), and Degas repeatedly used this term when referring to his friend in writing.22 Manzi became widely known for both inventing and refining certain photomechanical reproduction technologies first at Goupil & Cie and then at Boussod, Manzi, Joyant & Cie (which eventually became Manzi-Joyant). Their close friendship is partially reflected in the more than dozen portraits that Manzi produced of Degas and by the latter’s painting of his friend showing him at work in his studio (fig. 7). Degas was no doubt drawn to Manzi, at least in part, because of his celebrated achievements in photomechanical reproduction. Indeed, it seems likely that Degas’s identification with and admiration for Manzi’s success developing new technologies of image-making spurred him to collaborate with the publisher on a collection of twenty chromogravure reproductions of his work produced in 1897 or 1898 under the title Degas: vingt dessins, 1861–1896.23 By that point in his career, Degas very rarely exhibited his work, and he no longer had any financial concerns, with his work selling for extremely high sums. It seems likely, then, that the primary appeal of this project was the opportunity it afforded him to collaborate with Manzi, an implicit statement of his high regard for his friend’s inventive accomplishments. And such, indeed, was how this publication was received, as a demonstration of the innovative technologies that Manzi had developed for making high quality reproductions of artworks.24
Among the engineers and inventors with whom Degas was close, his relationship with Henri Rouart was no doubt the most intimate of them all. The two first met at the Lycée, and their friendship was rekindled when Degas served under Rouart (alongside Linet, Lainé, and Jeantaud) in the National Guard. Both the depth of their relationship and the extent of Rouart’s contributions to fields as diverse as refrigeration and ammunition are impossible to fully convey here, but I will highlight a few key indicators of each. Rouart attended the École Polytechnique, and in 1865–66, he and two partners built what would become an internationally acclaimed factory of metal parts in Montluçon. Sometime in the 1860s, he and his partner Jean-Baptiste Mignon started a factory and workshop in Paris, which was located on the Rue Oberkampf before moving to a much larger facility on the Boulevard Voltaire in 1877. There, the firm fabricated a wide range of mechanical equipment, such as gas motors, electrical generators, electric lighting apparatus, and ice-making and refrigeration equipment, among many other technologies that he and his partner invented, improved upon, or manufactured. Rouart played an important role in the development and manufacture of the first internal combustion gas motors, he made landmark contributions to the field of refrigeration technology, and he was at the forefront of the design and production of certain kinds of electrical equipment. Rouart also helped design Paris’s pneumatic tube message transport system and manufactured its parts. And this is just a glimpse into his truly remarkable career as an engineer, metallurgist, and manufacturer.
The term friendship fails to fully convey the affection and intimacy between him and Degas, since the latter was practically a member of Rouart’s family. As Jacques-Émile Blanche, a close friend of Degas, wrote after Rouart’s death in 1912: “When a door opened in the Rouart residence, one expected to see Degas enter. In effect, Degas was as much at home there as the master of the house… It is in the residence on the Rue de Lisbonne that Degas seemed to be completely himself, until the day that death stole one of his last friends.”25 I believe that the closeness between the two men was partially based on their shared professional commitment to materials, construction, and invention, and that Degas was deeply interested in Rouart’s world of engineering and fabrication. This claim is borne out by Blanche’s observation that, “over the course of sixty years, Degas regularly saw there former students of the École Polytechnique, artillery officers, and engineers, guests of his friends the Rouarts, whom, Degas repeated often, he liked more than some of his own colleagues.” Daniel Halévy, the son of Ludovic Halévy and Louise Breguet, also made a point of underscoring the pleasure Degas took in the company of the industrialists and former engineering students whom he regularly encountered in Rouart’s home: “It is very possible that the home he enjoyed the most was not ours, but that of Rouart, grand bourgeois, good painter even, but grand bourgeoisie first, former student of the École Polytechnique, active industrialist, and who had at his table, at the same time as Degas, not Parisian artists, but his former artillery companions, men of camaraderie and profession. With them, Degas was calm; the conversation wouldn’t revolve around art but around horses, the explosive flash of shells, and the steel of cannons.”26 These accounts make clear that the worlds of the Niaudet-Breguets and the Rouarts, filled with prominent inventors and constructors, were profoundly appealing to Degas for reasons, I would argue, that are directly tied to the central importance of construction, experimentation, and materials in his own work.
Evidence that Degas was closely engaged in Rouart’s work and that technical and material investigation were explicit areas of shared interest is not limited to the second-hand accounts just cited. One of the five letters that survive from Degas’s five-month stay with relatives in New Orleans in 1872–73 was written to Rouart, and it contains multiple references to his friend’s professional accomplishments and to technological innovations.27 Degas not only sends a greeting to Rouart’s business partner in Paris, Jean-Baptiste Mignon, but he makes a point of reporting on a steam-powered trolley that he saw in New Orleans, promising his friend that he’ll bring a description of it back to Paris for him. He also recounts an evening he spent with M. J. Bujac, who was the agent of an ice factory in New Orleans that employed refrigeration technology partially developed by Rouart and who owned the American patent to this technology, with Degas vowing to his friend that he would visit the ice factory for himself. As mentioned above, among the many fields to which Rouart made major contributions was refrigeration, and the factory in New Orleans was in fact the largest ice factory in the world at the time.28 Amid these multiple references to his friend’s work, Degas makes a direct connection between Rouart and his own artistic production, writing “I can’t wait to see you in my home, to work in contact with you.” It is possible that Degas was thinking of Rouart’s amateur painting practice when he made this comment. But the multiple remarks in the letter concerning technological innovation, combined with the absence of any mention of his friend’s work as a painter, instead suggests that his desire to work near Rouart reveals a perceived affinity between the two men’s professional production.
That an interest in materials and mechanics was seamlessly woven into the relationship between the two men is poignantly demonstrated by a moving passage from a letter that Degas wrote to Rouart in 1880, in which he conveys his deep affection for his friend precisely in metallurgic and mechanical terms. “The heart is like many instruments. It must be polished and used a lot so that it gleams and runs well. As for mine, it is you that polishes it, rather than its owner.”29 This passage succinctly attests not only to the remarkable closeness between the two men, but also to their shared engagement with how things are made, what they’re made out of, and how they operate. In expressing his profound attachment to his friend by comparing his heart to “an instrument … that gleams and runs well,” and that is maintained by Rouart, Degas conveys in intimate terms the men’s shared investment in the material and mechanical properties of objects, including, presumably, those of their own design and making. If we see Rouart’s innovations and inventions in metallurgy, engineering, electromechanics, and manufacturing as closely connected to Degas’s own decades-long investigation into materials and new modes of picture- and object-making, then it is entirely fitting that the first extended study of Degas’s experimentation with diverse media, tools, and processes, Degas à la recherche de sa technique, was written by none other than Henri Rouart’s grandson, Denis Rouart.30 Similarly, Paul Valéry’s Degas Danse Dessin, one of the earliest (and most perceptive) extended accounts of the artist and his work, makes a point of discussing Rouart’s renown as an engineer and inventor. In fact, it is to Rouart that we owe the very existence of this text, since Degas and Valéry came to know each other in his home. The first pages of the text convey the author’s deep admiration for Rouart’s career and list some of the fields to which he made significant contributions:
I was awed by the amplitude of a career in which nearly all the virtues of character and intelligence had been combined … He owed his fortune to machine construction, to inventions which he carried through from the purely theoretical to the technical and thence to the stage of industrial application. This is no place for the gratitude and affection that I owe to M. Rouart. I will only say that he is among the men who has left an impress on my mind. His researches into metallurgy and mechanics, as an inventor of thermodynamic machinery, went side by side with an ardent passion for painting.31
The placement of this account of Rouart in the opening pages of Degas Danse Dessin is ostensibly due to the engineer’s role in bringing Valéry and Degas together, but it also has the effect of at least partially situating the artist’s work under the sign of technological and material investigation.
Another unambiguous manifestation of the importance of Rouart’s work to Degas is the portrait of his friend that he painted around 1875 and that prominently features a factory in the background (fig. 8). There is no scholarly consensus on which, if any, specific factory is depicted by Degas, and it’s possible that it wasn’t closely modeled on any of the facilities to which Rouart was connected. In 1865–66, Rouart and his partners constructed a factory for high quality metal tubes in Montluçon that received prizes at numerous Universal Expositions. Aside from the importance of its products, this facility was celebrated for being one of the first factories to employ metal in its construction and, in the 1870s, for being among the earliest to employ electric lighting. Sometime in the 1860s, Rouart and Mignon started a workshop and factory on the Rue Oberkampf in Paris (which was prominent enough to merit a visit from the President of the Republic in 1874); in mid-1877, the firm moved to a larger facility on the Boulevard Voltaire, where electric illumination was also employed.32 Another possible source for the portrait of Rouart is the ice factory, known as the Louisiana Ice Works, that Degas discussed in his letter from New Orleans and that bears a similarity to the one in the portrait.33 Much more important, however, than the identity of the particular structure depicted is the very fact that Degas represented his close friend in front of a factory at all, an emphatic declaration of the significance of Rouart’s professional identity and accomplishments to Degas’s perception of him.
Rouart’s factory on the Boulevard Voltaire was the site of the most direct known intersection between his work and that of Degas, in the form of the latter’s experimentation with an object that was sometimes referred to as a “crayon de charbon” (carbon pencil). Despite its name, it was not a drawing instrument or artist’s tool of any kind, but rather a carbon rod that was a component of carbon arc lamps, which became popular in the 1870s as the first widely used sources of electric light (figs. 9 and 10). Degas used these crayons to incise the copper plates of some of his prints and, while his experimentation with this novel tool has been briefly discussed in previous sources on the artist’s work, the significance of these objects to the history of electricity, the work of Rouart, and the relationship between the latter and Degas’s production has thus far been entirely overlooked. In fact, carbon rods were the subject of much research in the early history of electric illumination, since the characteristics of the light produced by arc lamps owed a great deal to the performance of this particular component. As one source stated in 1881, “This is a point of great practical importance, because the quality of light obtained depends … in large part on the quality of the pencil employed. This fabrication is a very important industry today.”34 Based on a few primary sources, including a letter by Degas, we know that his use of carbon rods originated in an evening, likely in the late fall of 1879, spent dining in the home of Henri Rouart’s brother, Alexis, who lived in an apartment that was part of the Mignon & Rouart factory complex on the Boulevard Voltaire. Bad weather prevented Degas from returning home that evening, leading him to spend the night at Alexis’s apartment. The following morning, he wanted to make a print, and he ended up using a carbon rod found in the Rouart factory to incise a copper plate for the drypoint Leaving the Bath (fig. 11) and, subsequently, to make several other prints as well.35
What has been ignored in all previous accounts of Degas’s use of carbon rods is their direct connection to Rouart’s work. For one, Rouart’s factory in Montluçon, and very likely the one in Paris as well, were among the earliest in France to employ electric lighting, and the particular kinds of lamps used in his factory, Serrin lamps, employed carbon rods. But much more importantly, Rouart himself had been closely involved in the design and fabrication of carbon rods. Starting in the mid-1870s, he and Mignon worked with Octave Gauduin, a chemist who first developed what were considered to be the best performing carbon crayons (referred to as Gauduin crayons) to improve their design and to fabricate them, and their work continued after Gauduin died in 1878. Thus, at precisely the same time that Degas began experimenting with carbon rods in his printmaking practice, Rouart was directly engaged in their development and manufacture. Degas’s use of this unconventional tool thus intertwined artistic innovation with advances in electrical illumination, and linked his work to that of Rouart (and, less directly, that of Niaudet and even Jeantaud, both of whose careers focused on electrical technologies). Degas’s experiments with the carbon rod, his interest in installing electric lighting in the 1879 Impressionist exhibition, and his countless depictions of artificial illumination (though almost always gas, not electric, lighting) can and should be viewed, at least in part, in the context of the work of the circle of friends described in this essay and their enormous contributions to the history of electrical technology, both as inventors and makers.36
Degas’s experimentation with the carbon rod reflects not only a deep engagement with Rouart’s work and a desire to align that work with his own production, but also a keen interest in material and technological innovations in a range of fields far outside his own. Indeed, a letter that Degas wrote to Alexis Rouart immediately after his first use of the carbon rod succinctly conveys the artist’s delight in incorporating a range of tools from outside the sphere of art into his work:
My dear friend, it was only yesterday that I had this little attempt with carbon crayon printed. You see what a pretty gray it is. One should have emery pencils. Do give me an idea how to make them myself. I could not talk about it with your brother on Friday. Thank you for the stone you gave me. It scratches copper in the most delightful manner. Is it a conglomerate like Denis Poulot makes? … On what could I use it as an etching needle? No time to do some really serious experiments.37
This passage concisely illustrates the artist’s enthusiasm both for using materials and tools from the Rouarts’ world of metallurgy and manufacturing in his practice and for technical and material innovation more generally. Degas not only celebrates the results of the print made from the carbon rods procured from the Rouart factory, but he also thanks Alexis for a stone that also likely originated from there and contemplates the surfaces on which he could use it to make an etching. He then goes on to reference Denis Poulot, a specialist in polishing and grinding tools and machines who opened a factory in Paris in 1872 and won a medal at the Universal Exposition of 1878 (fig. 12), a figure whom Degas almost certainly knew because of the Rouarts.38 In this letter to Alexis, he goes even further than expressing an eagerness to experiment with various tools from the spheres of electrical illumination, metal polishing, and so on. He also imagines creating his own tools, seeking Alexis’s and Henri’s guidance on how to make a pencil out of emery, a mineral employed in abrasive material, for use in his printmaking practice. In sum, this letter is a striking testament both to Degas’s desire to connect his work with that of innovators in a range of technical and engineering fields and his deep engagement with the physical make-up and behaviors of different tools and materials, be they carbon crayons, emery, stone, conglomerates, or copper.
This intense interest in media and equipment is reflected in countless other ways in Degas’s body of work and working practice. To offer one final example, in the summer of 1876, just a few years before he began experimenting with carbon rods, he took up monotype printing, which would have a profound impact on his work for decades to come. The earliest account of his developing fascination with this medium comes from Marcellin Desboutin, a close friend and fellow painter and printmaker, in a letter that he wrote in July of that year:
Degas … is no longer a friend, a man, an artist! He is a zinc or copper plate blackened with printer’s ink, and plate and man are flattened together by his printing press, whose mechanism has swallowed him completely! The man’s crazes are out of this world. He now is in the metallurgic phase of reproducing his drawings with a roller and is running all over Paris … trying to find the legion of specialists who will realize his obsession… He talks only of metallurgists, lead casters, lithographers, planishers!39
Just as in the letter from Degas to Alexis Rouart, so here too, the artist’s attention is squarely fixed on the specific materials and tools of picture-making—rollers, zinc and copper plates, printer’s ink, printing press—and on engaging the equipment and expertise of specialists outside of his field. One should also not overlook the significance of the fact that metallurgy, Rouart’s field of specialization, is mentioned not once but twice in this short description of the origins of Degas’s interest in monotypes.
There can be no better illustration of Duranty’s arguments about the significance of new tools to artistic innovation and the historical specificity of certain media and tools than these examples, among others, of Degas’s eager experimentation with new materials, techniques, and equipment, drawn from both within and outside his field. His incessant investigation into diverse media and processes over the course his career, and his sustained fascination with questions of construction and materials, were absolutely central to his oeuvre. These essential features of his body of work come into much clearer focus when we view them, at least in part, in the contexts of Duranty’s 1870 text and the circle of prominent engineers, inventors, and manufacturers with whom Degas chose to surround himself and in whose work he saw reflections of his own.