Portrait of Henri Michel-Lévy (c. 1878) by Edgar DegasCalouste Gulbenkian Museum
'Portrait of Henri Michel-Lévy' (c. 1878) is one of the most enigmatic works in the Founder's Collection. The complex construction of its composition raises countless questions and suggests multiple possible readings. Presented at the fourth impressionist exhibition (1879), the work was displayed with the title 'Artist in his Studio'.
The composition develops in an unexpected space of representation, where the painter, through elements cleverly enclosed in distinct segments of the pictorial space, simultaneously reveals and hides the true meaning of the representation.
To the right, we can see an updated version of the 'fête galante' in impressionist style, also a tribute to Manet’s transgressive ‘Déjeuner sur l’herbe’.
On the left appears the painting 'The Regattas', which establishes a relationship between the mannequin on the floor and its representation on canvas.
This complex scenario seems to hint at an original view of the relationship between truth and illusion and may even be a reflection on the art’s ‘raison d’être’ and the inevitability of death.
Supporting this interpretation, a small prone doll blurred by the slightly off-centre palette in a paint box, painted as if it was the open lid of a coffin, can be seen in the foreground.
Therefore, one can say that the composition incorporates both a life cycle with the suggestion of ‘joie de vivre’ and the perspective of death.
The painting seeks, above all, to represent human isolation, a profoundly innovative aspect in the artist’s work, which led the critic Edmond Duranty to call him, during that period, the 'inventor of social chiaroscuro'.
Heavily influenced by Titian and Ingres, Degas was, simultaneously, a classical painter and a breakaway artist.
In portraying with cruelty that which Baudelaire called the 'modern life', Degas found in his painting, in fact, a new version of real, a 'mental' real.
Text by Luísa Sampaio
Curator of the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum