Edgar Degas’s Roman Inspiration

Among the many exquisite unique works in Swann’s September 12 Prints & Drawings auction is a double-sided drawing by Edgar Degas, drawn during one of the artist’s visits to Rome.

While Degas (1834-1917) is often associated with Impressionism, his now famous renditions of modern scenes of Parisian demimonde characters, ballet dancers and bathers were heavily influenced by his early technical training sketching from Italian Renaissance masters. Born to a wealthy banking family, Degas was first educated in one of the most rigorous and prestigious schools in Paris, the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, where he learned the classics. His father recognized Degas’ ability to draw at an early age and prompted him to perfect his technique, taking him to the great museums of Paris to copy the Renaissance masters. In the late 1850s, Degas made several sojourns to Italy to sketch, it was there he became deeply engrossed in rendering the static human forms of early Renaissance frescos. 

This double-sided work was clearly drawn during one of his visits to Rome–one side depicts a study of the Delphic Sibyl from Michelangelo’s famed frescos in the Sistine Chapel. In his study, Degas focused his attention on the contours of the elegant and powerful arms of Sibyl, leaving her face and drapery subtly addressed by comparison. 

The other side of the sheet represents an academic drawing of a woman, perhaps rendered from life, which similarly focuses on the curved outline of the torso. As Degas’s studio practice progressed, his focus on strong contours outlining the body while obscuring the face became part of his individual style. Degas would continue to be influenced by various artistic traditions throughout his career, ranging from 16th-century Italian Mannerist works to traditional Japanese Ukiyo-e woodcuts.