Early Masterwork by Edgar Degas comes to the Princeton University Art Museum

Special Loan from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris

PRINCETON, N.J.—The Princeton University Art Museum presents an early masterpiece by Impressionist artist Edgar Degas (1834-1917), a portrait on loan for a limited time from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.Thérèse de Gas, painted about 1863, represents the artist’s beloved sister at an important transitional moment in the artist’s career. Thérèse de Gas is on view now through Sunday, July 17, 2011, when it will return to Paris. 

Museum director James Steward notes: “Degas’ portrait of his older sister Thérèse is an early, psychologically poignant work that reveals the artist as a superb painter while still in his 20s.” Known as one of the founders of Impressionism, the academically trained Edgar Degas preferred to be known as a revolutionary realist whose portraits are remarkable for their psychological penetration. 

The portrait dates from the period in which he met Édouard Manet and began to give up the history painting and mythological scenes of his academic training at the École des Beaux Arts, Paris, in favor of contemporary subject matter. Dominated by the dark palette he never wholly abandoned, the work also dates from the period Degas continued work on another masterpiece, the portrait of the Bellelli family, completed in 1867. 

Thérèse Degas lacked the beauty, musical talent and wit of her younger sister Marguerite, but she was the artist’s favorite. The subject of a series of portraits by her brother, Thérèse is dressed in traveling clothes and wearing her engagement ring. This first formal portrait in oils is considered her engagement portrait, celebrating Thérèse’s betrothal to her cousin Edmondo Morbilli. She stands before a window, opening onto a Neapolitan scene indicating the city where she would spend the greater part of her life. Throughout the years, Degas saw Thérèse during his visits to Italy or her trips to France, and an affectionate correspondence bears witness to his continuing devotion. Her death in 1912 is thought to have been one of the critical turning points, along with his increasing blindness, in his own decline and eventual death in 1917. 

An indication of Degas’s closeness to Thérèse is his own self-portrait of about 1863, also showing the artist in front of an open window. Although there is no evidence to prove it, this unfinished self-portrait may have been created as a gift for his sister to take to Naples as a remembrance of him, while he would keep his portrait of her with him in Paris. When the two portraits are seen together, Degas’s self-portrait is revelatory of his strong identification with Thérèse: the similar settings, attire and facial features seem to immortalize their bond in twin images, just as they were on the verge of separation. 

Editor’s Note: The title of the painting is correctly spelled, Thérèse de Gas.