A newly published translation of the memoir, “Degas and His Model” by Alice Michel, recounts something long known about the artist, though rarely talked about – his hatred of Jews, specifically, and his inhumanity in general – which showed up in his work. (More about that in a moment). Michel describes Degas ‘brutishness in the workplace: he kept his studio dark, cold and dirty and insisted on hour-long wrenching poses for his Models. (”Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot” comes to mind). He also had a hair-trigger temper and was given to frequent anti-Semitic outbursts like this one: “I detest them, those Jews!

An abominable race that ought to be shut up in ghettos. Or even totally eradicated.”

Who's kidding who?

Degas not only hated the Jews, but also women. His callousness can be seen in his works of dancers that are popular with the general public, and it’s a wonder so few of his fans notice this. I’m thinking of L-Attente, a depiction of naked ballerinas sitting in a row with their legs spread apart to bear their sex organs or his renderings of dancers doing indecorous things like yawning. All of this makes an assertion he made to his art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, pretentious: “People call me the painter of dancing girls. It has never occurred to them that my chief interest in dance lies in rendering movement.” It’s hard to see the movement he speaks of in his peep shows.

Unless capturing someone yawning is the kind of movement he meant.

Telling it the way it is

Some members of the art community acknowledge that this emperor wears no clothes. J.K. Huysmans, a critic in the 19th century, recognized Degas’ misogyny by calling out his “attentive cruelty, a patient hatred, debasing the female while seeming to honor her.” Museums know this stuff but keep quiet about it.

Not all, though. Douglas Druick, curator of European paintings at the Chicago Art Institute, who mounted a show of the painter’s work in 1996, told the Chicago Tribune, “I love Degas the artist. But I wouldn’t cross the street to meet Degas the man.” Au contraire, said Christopher Benfey, who teaches literature at Mt. Holyoke College in Mass.

Separating the artist from the man is not do-able owing to his “vicious anti-Semitism.” Benfy, not one to let this painter’s artfulness cloud his view of him, reminds us of the contorted poses he put his models through, saying, “Many of the images are aggressively drawn.”

The Degas-Trump connection

Why do museums routinely ignore Degas darker side? Kathryn Hixon, editor of the New Art Examiner has said it’s about money: “It’s easier to sell tickets to dancers and pretty women than to a new multicultural art history of Degas.” In normal times, that explanation about pictures in museums that denigrate women serves. But Degas’ lack of compassion should not be overlooked at this particular time when Trump’s America allows white-supremacists and anti-Semitism to flourish.

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