Degas began work on Petites filles Spartiates provoquant des garçons following his return to Paris from a three year sojourn in Italy. While in Italy, Degas was exposed to the great masters Giotto, Piero Della Francesca and Andrea Mantegna whose frescoes and paintings strengthened his fervent interest in the art of the early Renaissance. In addition to those masters, Degas was an admirer of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Jacques-Louis David, specifically their monumental portraits and scenes from Greek and Roman mythology. Over the years, Degas amassed a collection of their works including twenty paintings and ninety drawings. His affinity for their work never waned; at the Ingres exhibition of 1911 Degas, who was then almost blind, came to pay homage to the paintings he had admired for so long. “He stood close to the pictures, touching them, running his hands over their immaculately finished surfaces” (I. Dunlop, Degas, New York, 1979, p. 26).
Undeniably rooted in the artist’s rich understanding of art history, the precise inspiration for the present work is unknown. However, one recorded explanation exists in the artist’s notebooks: “Young girls and young boys wrestling on the plane tree grove, under the eyes of the aged Lycurgus alongside some mothers” (quoted in R. McMullen, Degas, His Life, Times, and Work, Boston, 1984, p. 103). This notation suggests the present work may have been inspired by the life of Lycurgus, the legendary ninth-century B.C. Spartan leader who established the militaristic reformation of Spartan society rooted in three main virtues: equality, military fitness and austerity. Lycurgus’s social reforms included an unusual method of physical training in which adolescent girls were trained alongside boys. This progressive interpretation of equality is depicted in the final version of Petites filles Spartiates provoquant des garçons where the girls at one side, confidently taunt the boys at the other. The present work focuses on the facial expressions of the boys, a one-sided glimpse at the final scene in which Degas’ painstaking experiments with varying facial expressions for the boys is captured; their expressions poignantly communicate awkwardness and intimidation shrouded by a mocking façade.
The final Petites filles Spartiates provoquant des garçons was completed only after numerous preparatory sketches and various oil studies. The various stages of study and modifications to nearly completed canvases meant that, while these assembled works have traditionally been dated to 1860, some were likely reworked again, in certain instances years, and possibly decades, later. Robert Gordon and Andrew Forge described these various states and stages writing: “The Petites filles Spartiates is by far the most important of Degas’s historical pictures. He worked on it over a period of years, the very period during which he was discovering himself as a painter. The discoveries are rehearsed in the painting itself. Not surprisingly, he treasured it in later years. There are two full-scale versions of the Petites filles Spartiates, one in monochrome and the other, on a slightly larger canvas, painted in a full palette. There is at least one oil sketch of the composition and numerous studies from models. When we compare the two full-scale versions it is at once clear that while he was working on the picture, Degas went through a profound change of outlook. In the grisaille sketch, the figures are set in a conventional 'classical' setting. There is a little temple in the middle distance and a grove of trees on the right, and the scale of the figures to their surroundings is the scale of museums pictures, a Poussin Bacchanal. X-rays have shown that trees and temple were once in the final, colored version too. At some point Degas painted over them, opening the landscape into a wide plane, distancing the mountain and turning the figures from nudes inside a certain type of picture to naked youths exposed” (R. Gordon & A. Forge, op.cit., p. 45). In the present work the modification and movement of the male figures is evident compared with the final version now in the collection of the National Gallery, London, where the figure at far right emerges between the two leftmost figures. The figure on his hands and knees in the National Gallery canvas is here missing entirely while the back of a fifth figure staring towards the horizon is partially visible beneath the artist's pentimenti.
There are contemporary accounts of Degas’s pride and continued interest in this composition late in life. Some state that he hung a version of this work in his bedroom while others point to its presence in the artist’s studio where he would direct attention of visitors who were there to see his later works. Roy McMullan offers a further explanation for Degas’s attachment: “In short this is a forward-looking picture. It contains hints of what will become a brilliantly idiosyncratic mixture of Neoclassicism and Realism, a passion for movement, and a peculiar way of advancing backward into modernism, with eyes fixed on the past. And Degas appears to have been more than a little aware of all this foreshadowing, for he cherished the painting all his life. In 1880 he was willing to risk hanging it in the contrasting and seemingly inappropriate context of the fifth exhibition of the Impressionists. Like a proud father with an unaccountably favorite child, he was apt in middle age to insist on showing it to studio visitors who had come to see more recent work. Ludovic Halévy’s son Daniel, looking back at a long friendship with the painter, wrote, 'I can still remember the tenderness he had during his last year for an old canvas, The Girls of Sparta Challenge the Boys to Wrestle [sic], which he placed on an easel'” (R. McMullen, op. cit., pp. 105-06).
The longstanding legacy of the present work can be found in works by modern and contemporary artists alike, including Paul Cézanne and Lucian Freud. Cézanne’s bathers of the 1880s and 1890s evoke compositional and stylistic elements of Petites filles Spartiates provoquant des garcons. As with Ingres, Degas collected many of Cézanne’s works including a circa 1883 painting of a bather, several nude drawing studies from the 1890s and an early 1870s Venus and Cupid. Picasso was exposed to Degas from a young age – first in reproductions he saw in his native Spain and, beginning in 1900, in person upon Picasso’s arrival in Paris. Each viewed now as the master draughtsman of their respective generations other similarities are found in their referencing of the old masters and obsessive study of bodies in motion. Picasso’s Rose Period Boy with Horse features a male nude in an ambiguous landscape with muted palette and strict attention to physicality. Degas’s works imbue more portrait-like characteristics in the young mens’ faces than in either Cézanne or Picasso’s works. Lucian Freud spoke to this quality of Degas’s work in a 2010 interview with Martin Gayford stating: “Yes, you might say that Degas’s people were more naked than nude—that he was making portraits of naked people. With his work, you always think of the individual people and their particular anatomy. And it is true; I think of the people in my own pictures as more naked than nude. The notion of 'nude' has in a way a self-conscious artistic feeling, and 'naked' has much more to do with how the people are actually made. When I’m painting someone without clothes, I think more of portraiture, of the form being specific to the person. The naked truth: I’ve always rather liked that expression…when going through museums and galleries, I would gravitate toward his works. I like Degas altogether, his pictures of horses, everything. I love that early picture, Young Spartans Exercising [The National Gallery, London], I think it’s wonderful. I think Degas was a very great artist” (reproduced in Degas and the Nude (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston & Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 2011-12, pp. XIII – XV).
The British painter Cecily Brown also cites Edgar Degas, especially Petites filles Spartiates provoquant des garçons, as being particularly influential to her work. Interviewed about the same work which Freud held in such esteem Brown said "It's a painting I have always been drawn back to again and again and I've always found more....the composition is so extraordinary...it's very mysterious as to what exactly they are doing...it almost seems to be a coming of age painting. I was struck by how timeless it was. I was even in the park last summer and I was thinking about this painting and I saw a bunch of teenagers mucking about...and I thought it was just a bunch of young Spartans of the 21st century....The boys...their faces...the range of expressions is extraordinary...they always remind me of the faces in the Piero della Francesca Nativity" (quoted in an interview with Nicholas Penny at the National Gallery, London in 2012).
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