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Two giants of modernity meet: Degas and Rodin

Stefan Dege eg
November 2, 2016

They both worked in Paris and died in 1917. Now, artists Edgar Degas and Auguste Rodin meet posthumously in a joint exhibition in a museum in Wuppertal.

Exhibition Degas & Rodin at the Von der Heydt-Museum Wuppertal
Image: DW/S.Dege

Gerhard Finckh, director of the Von der Heydt Museum in Wuppertal, describes artists Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) as the "giants of Impressionism" who "raced each other into modernity."

As their 100th anniversary of their deaths approaches, major retrospective exhibitions will focus on their work. Finckh has prepared a double show featuring both artists, highlighting their similarities and differences.

Degas and Rodin lived, worked and died in Paris - the hotspot of Impressionism in the second half of the 19th century. Their paths were, however, quite different. Degas grew up in an aristocratic family and became famous as the painter of wonderful dance scenes. Rodin was the son of a policeman and established his name as the most important sculptor of his time.

Exhibition Degas & Rodin at the Von der Heydt-Museum in Wuppertal
Degas created this round of dancersImage: DW/S. Dege

The painter, who did some sculpting, and the sculptor, who also painted, will now meet posthumously in Wuppertal.

They are also known to have met in real life at least twice. A postcard written by Degas, opening with "Dear Rodin," has also been discovered.

The inventors of Impressionist sculptures

Both artists developed their own creative interpretation of everyday experiences. Degas, for instance, often painted dancers on stage or cabaret women preparing for a performance.

Rodin gave an until then untypically rough surface to his sculptures. His early sculpture "Man with the Broken Nose" was a definite break with Classicism and demonstrated his commitment to Modernity, just like the wax sculpture Degas had done of a 14-year-old dancer that scandalized critics at the time. The artist had painted her lips red and dressed the statue with a real costume. Degas never exhibited other sculptures afterwards. Several works were discovered in his studio after his death.

"Degas and Rodin invented Impressionist sculptures," says Museum Director Finckh. Their lifelike statues are organized in parading rows.  Movement and grace transpire in a series of six statues of dances by Degas. Both artists were fascinated by movement and dance.

The anatomy and movements of horses also interested them. Degas loved horse races and immortalized scenes with colorful jockeys in different paintings and pastel drawings. Horses are not as common in Rodin's work, but do appear in a few drawings and sketches.

The role of photography in their work is also interesting to compare: Rodin took pictures of his sculptures and Degas mostly photographed friends and acquaintances.

The exhibition, which presents about 100 works by the two artists, offers a series of interesting discoveries. The Rodin Museum in Paris contributed 50 sculptures to the show. However, Degas' 14-year-old dancer is missing - it's now on show at the Wallraff-Richartz Museum in Cologne.

The "Degas & Rodin - Giants of Modernity" exhibition will run through February 26, 2017 at the Von der Heydt Museum in Wuppertal.