The Classics Department provided classics and College of Letters (COL) majors the opportunity to take a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) in New York City on Saturday, Nov. 11. After taking a coach that left campus at 8:30 a.m (it was rough), we arrived outside the largest museum in the Americas. We then split into two groups to take on a short tour around either the Ancient Roman or Ancient Greek sections, stocked with statues and art from over 2,000 years ago portraying the (often morally dubious) myths that us classics nerds obsess over—though, realistically some of us are much more influenced by Percy Jackson than we ever could be by Ovid.
Also showing was an exhibition called “Manet/Degas,” which many of us attended. Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas were artistic compatriots in the second half of the 19th century. They both were born into the middle-class society of Paris. Though very familiar with one another, the pair’s art was markedly different from one another’s. Their most glaring difference lies in their approach to the artistic world. Manet painted for the salon, the official art exhibition for the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and thus the high society of Paris. In contrast, Degas was more interested in creating new avenues for artists to create, unrestrained by refined and traditional opinion. Degas submitted his art to more less formal exhibitions, which were more popular among impressionists.
Yet it is still a debate among art historians whether either Manet or Degas can be called Impressionists. Most consider Manet as a leader of the movement. His paintings are pregnant with emotive strokes of color, and his models are dynamic, individualistic and stylised. Still, he paints for the salon, and never quite breaks from the aesthetic exactitude and symbolism considered more traditional.
Degas called himself a Realist, yet he too seems to have painted like an Impressionist. Many of the paired subjects are the same, as indicated by this exhibition, which placed Manet and Degas paintings with the same subjects side-by-side, such as horse riders, a bathing woman, and dancers. While their approaches and paintings are distinctive, Degas’ work gives the impression that his subjects are not posed and that he is not trying to tell the viewer anything or explain an idea, but rather to capture a moment with honesty. The style appears less symbolic, more exact and classical, but it has no clear meaning. The paintings are evocative rather than telling. This is an idea that the impressionists played with, wanting to move away from anecdotal and towards more ambiguous art.
I felt that seeing these two contemporaries in contrast gave me a deeper insight into their individual styles as well as helping me form an opinion on style, as someone who is no art expert. Manet and Degas’ styles evoked very different reactions in me. Perhaps it sounds simplistic to say that I was more moved by Degas but interested by the stories of Manet, but that’s the truth of how I felt.
Regardless, I left the Met feeling that I had better understood the chasms that can lie between painters from the same period and under the same movement, and of course marveling at what an epicenter for art Paris was in the 19th century. I loved it all, despite the crowds, and remain haunted by Degas’ “Interior.”
Charlotte Seal can be reached at email@example.com.