In Degas’ never-ending quest to reconcile the craft of the Old Masters and the evolving canon of his contemporaries, he was left with incomplete painting principles which were reflected in his seemingly unfinished paintings (see fig. 1). Felix Baumann and Marianne Karabelnik wrote on Degas’ non finitos: “Degas’s non finito was therefore quite intentional. It might indicate something important or something unimportant; it might emphasize a gesture or a hand to such an extent that it came to signify the essential, making anything extra unnecessary. Or it might serve quite simply to enliven the picture, to give the pictorial qualities of the painting primacy over the portrait, to beguile or to baffle the viewer. But it also signified Degas’s constant search for the ‘craft’ of the Old Masters" (Felix Baumann & Marianne Karabelnik, “Introduction,” in Degas Portraits, London, 1994, p. 13).
In Portrait d'homme assis, Degas explores the anatomy of the seated pose. The subject is shrouded in an assured yet mysterious aura that permeates the painting. Degas also plays with the effect of light, framing the face of the sitter with bright highlights and the collar framing the face from below.
Emily Maurer writes on Degas’ relationship to his portrait paintings, “Degas experimented in the portrait, breaking the restrictions of the genre wide open. He expanded the vocabulary of the portrait not by sharpening his observation, but rather by formal innovation. In a series of bold steps, Degas rethought the design, the framing, the viewing angle, the compositional structure, the repertoire of attitudes and gestures and the functions of colour in the portrait” (Emily Maurer, “Portraits as Pictures: Degas between Taking a Likeness and Making a Work of Art (Tableau),” in ibid., p. 101).
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