Impressionist & Modern Art

Drawn from Life: Works on Paper by Degas, Schiele & Modigliani

By Sotheby's

A selection of exquisite works on paper by Edgar Degas, Egon Schiele and Amedeo Modigliani will be offered in the upcoming Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale on the 20 June in London. Ahead of the sale, we take a closer look at these remarkable drawings and the ways in which they reveal the personal and professional passions of some of the most important draughtsmen of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

While Edgar Degas has long been celebrated as a painter, printmaker and even posthumously as a sculptor, drawing was the medium that most captivated the artist during his lifetime. As a young boy, Degas would spend days copying paintings in the Louvre, and, as a grown man, became an avid collector himself, treasuring the smallest sketch as a work to be “prized, framed and hung on a wall” (Jean Sutherland Boggs, Drawings by Degas, 1966).

One must do the same subject over again ten times, a hundred times. In art nothing must resemble an accident, not even movement.
Edgar Degas

Degas' sensitive exploration of the medium allowed him to examine the human form in different stages of movement. After his early studies and training, Degas became well-known for his depictions of ballet dancers and performers, both on stage and in rehearsal, acquiring a deep knowledge of the human form in motion. The delicate use of line that characterises the artist’s early work is beautifully demonstrated in Homme nu, assis, he carefully measures out the proportions of the body and posture of his sitter, seeking to understand the muscular power of his subject, and the underlying dynamics of the human body.

These drawings, remarkable for the extraordinary quality of the draughtsmanship, were executed in Rome during the three years that the young artist spent in Italy from 1856 to 1859. Degas left for Italy in July 1856 at the age of twenty-two, sailing first from Marseilles to Naples where he spent the summer months at his grandfather’s home. On arrival in Rome in October, he enrolled in life drawing sessions at the French Academy in the Villa Medici, under the directorship of the great Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres.

On his return to Paris Degas moved away from the traditions of the 19th century academies and began to focus his art on the themes that would come to dominate his late œuvre. Après le bain, femme s'essuyant captures the routine practice of a woman drying herself after bathing. Degas’ bather is neither odalisque nor nude; rather she is a figure with agency, absorbed entirely in the familiar task of drying herself. Gracefully extending the left arm to reach the side of her chest, the artist reveals the gentle torsion of her back and shoulders through areas of subtle cross-hatching, while the natural contours of the female body are alternatively highlighted and muted by soft shading. 

Modigliani's Femme À La Robe Décolletée Allongée Sur Un Lit (Anna Akhmatova) perfectly captures the essence of the artist's approach to portraiture. Known for a distinctive and consistent style, Modigliani carved a position for himself in the Paris art scene in the early twentieth century, which at the time was the epicentre of experimentation in artistic production. Modigliani's portraits are characterised by his ability to convey great feeling with relatively few lines.

This sensitive drawing shows the celebrated Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, with whom Modigliani had formed a close friendship. The composition shows Akhmatova reclining, at ease, with a slight smile on her face. Accounts of their relationship describe a deep emotional and intellectual intimacy between the artist and poet, which one can clearly see in the extraordinary tenderness that Modigliani rendered his subject.

With her undergarments drawn up to display her stockings and her hand resting between her thighs, Egon Schiele’s Liegende strikes a different tone to Modigliani’s depiction of a reclining woman. Schiele's numerous drawings of nude or scantily clad women were considered controversial when they were first exhibited to the public, and to this day they still have the power to provoke. Hauntingly sensual, the raw immediacy of the pose in the present work is eclipsed only by Schiele’s technical virtuosity. His fluid, expressive movements over the paper allow the viewer a glimpse in to the artist’s working process and his lyrical approach to mark-making.

Executed in 1908, Ohne Titel, dates from an earlier period within the artist’s œuvre. Though only eighteen years old when he drew this work, Schiele’s extraordinary appreciation of form and his sensitive handling of the medium demonstrates a striking maturity far exceeding his years. In counterpoint to the apparent spontaneity and daring of the later Liegende, this composition is considered and the lines more sensitive, resulting in a drawing that is distinguished as much by its structure and harmony as its masterful draftsmanship.

Draughtsmanship is the most basic tenet of artistic creation: the very act of putting pencil to paper represents both the genesis of an idea and the means of its execution. These extraordinary works by Modigliani, Schiele and Degas are emblematic of the artists’ respective oeuvres, which, while radically different, are underpinned by a prodigious mastery of line and a delicacy of expression.

CLICK HERE to view the full sale catalogue. 

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