Degas is known to be one of the most important and influential Impressionist painters. Celebrated for his ability to capture fleeting moments and human relationships like no other, his work stands as a document to the dramatic artistic shifts of the period. Degas’ work incorporates many of the ideologies of French Modernism such as time, colour, honesty and reality.
This painting depicts Monsieur and Madame Louis Rouart. Louis was the fourth son of Henri Rouart, who was a close friend of Degas. Henri was a wealthy industrialist and an artist himself, participating in seven of the eight Impressionist shows. Rouart senior met Degas when they attended the elite Lycée Louis le Grand in Paris from 1845 to 1853. On graduating, Degas first became a lawyer before turning to painting, while Rouart joined the military and then became an engineer.
During the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71, Degas, who had volunteered for the army, was a lieutenant under Rouart’s command. After the armistice their friendship continued, with Degas dining at least once a week at Rouart’s house. Degas admired Rouart’s ingenuity and his involvement with the brand-new field of refrigeration. Degas also respected his friend as a connoisseur, an outstanding collector of old-master and nineteenth-century paintings, and an enthusiastic supporter of the Impressionists. Rouart not only bought many of the Impressionists’ works and helped to defray their exhibition expenses. Degas painted his friend three times, and his wife and family more often as is seen in this work of Henri’s son and his wife.
Like his father, Louis Rouart was also close to Degas and had a clear love for the arts. He became the publisher and director of Librairie d’Art Catholique which published books on religious painters such as Fra Angelico and Raphael. Louis’ clear devotion to Catholicism and the printed press, does not go unnoticed by Degas, who has depicted him as a bookish and thoughtful character. Louis’ wife Christine also had an artistic background, with her father being the noted painter Henri Lerolle.
This work is one of the last portraits Degas created, and presents a private moment in Madame and Mousieur Louis Rouart’s relationship. Degas’ closeness to the couple is evident in their comfort in him depicting such an informal moment. Central to the composition is Christine, an indication of her open and outgoing nature which complements her more reserved husband. Turning her head wistfully to engage with her husband, it is Louis who positions his body towards her, a sign of his devotion and the intimate moment they are sharing. One is given a tangible understanding of the couple through the smile that plays upon Christine’s lips and the more withdrawn expression of her husband. This is a new portrait style for a married couple, revealing an insight into a very real relationship, instead of a formulaic structured portrait sitting.
Degas depicted the couple on many occasions, with differing versions in this piece being in important collections such as the Pola Museum, Japan. Of the eight pastel sketches in the series, three are fully finished works, each developing towards the couple being placed in an outdoor setting, which scholars have suggested is a park at La Queue-en-Brie. The large scale of this work increases its importance and is rare for Degas. Unlike many of his other sketches, this portrait is on a singular sheet of paper instead of multiple pieces attached together, indicating that its entire composition was considered carefully before its production.
Japanese prints had a strong influence upon Degas’ work, as seen here through the asymmetrical composition. This exacerbates the snapshot like nature of the piece while also highlighting the artist’s typically unusual use of perspective. Aerial perspective is common within Japanese prints and Degas’ use of it in this work highlights the fleeting moment he has captured. From this unusual position Degas places us as an onlooker, with the abstract green colour in the devoid space only heightening our focus upon the couple themselves.
The medium, colouring and realism of this portrait is typical of Degas. The burnt umber and orange laid in contrast with the emerald green is a combination often seen in Degas’ work, particularly his ballet sketches and on occasion also his nude bathers. One example is Degas’ Dancers, Pink and Green which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and uses almost identical colours. In this portrait the green and oranges offset each other perfectly and reveal his interest in colour relationships, a notion integral to Impressionist painting.