For this research point, we were asked to take a look at monoprints by Degas and write about how have they been achieved and how successful they are.
I started off by doing some internet research on Degas. I was most familiar with his pastels, paintings, drawings of ballet dancers but was less familiar with his monoprints. In his lifetime he was to produce more than 250 subjects and 400 separate impressions in monotype, far exceeding hisetchings or lithographs.
Degas was introduced to mono printing by his friend Vicomte Ludovic Lepic, who devised the method of adding ink to previously etched plates which produced much richer tones on the prints. Degas experimented with this technique, wiping and moving the inks around with a rag, a tool or even his fingers on the plate. The unpredictable results of this technique appealed to Degas as it enabled him to be creative, spontaneous and experimental and to work quickly. He sometimes pulled several prints from the same original image and then, after the ink was dry, enhanced the ‘ghost’ prints with pastel or gouache, sometimes drawing with them and sometimes achieving a wash by adding water to the pastel. In this way he created a series of prints which had similar compositions but very different moods.
I have enjoyed studying Degas’ monotypes,. There were several which particularly appealed to me and I chose them as they demonstrate the range of moods and expressions achieved by his techniques.
The Fireside ca 1876-7 Edgar Degas
In the late 1870s and early 1880s, many of Degas’ mono prints were of nude women bathing and his monotype techniques were ideal for capturing such private and intimate scenes ‘The Fireside’ is a good example of the ‘dark field’ method in which the printing plate was covered with ink which was then removed by brushing, wiping or scratching off, to create the composition. Degas was able to create a dramatic atmosphere by capturing patterns of light and shadow.
‘Bedtime’ c. 1880-5, Edgar Degas
‘Bedtime’ would have started off as a monotype similar to ‘The Fireside’ but Degas worked on the ghost print with pastels, adding several layers of colour. Using this technique, Degas has changed a night-time scene lit from a single source like a candle, into a day-time one minus the shadows. According to the information on the Tate gallery website, he has also modified the girl’s pose, showing both legs instead of only one. When seen close up, the original monotype shows through faintly in a few places, especially in the region of the pillow, where is is possible to see traces of the original profile of the head. I must say I prefer the darker, moodier monotype images to the pastel ones which seem to have lost something of the atmosphere of the scene and the textures achieved by the monotype process.
I really like the series La Famille Cardinal was a collection of 33 monotypes to illustrate series of short story episodes by his close friend, Ludovic Halévy. In contrast with the scenes above, Degas’ series of ‘La Famille Cardinal’ is rougher and more sketchy.
Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas
Madame Cardinal scolding an admirer 1880–83
21.3 x 16 cm
Felton Bequest, 1974 (P2-1974)
Degas used a very loose style to depict this scene. Degas applied the ink directly onto the plate and then achieved the detail by wiping away some of the ink on the plate, using various methods, various tools and by altering the thickness of added ink. For the man in top-hat and Madame Cardinal’s dress he has used loose downward strokes of an inked rag while the hem of the girl’s skirt and her legs and feet are executed with liquid brush strokes and thinned ink.
It is clear that a range of techniques can be achieved using the monotype as a starting point. I am looking forward to trying out some of these techniques and then working further on the ghost prints. I would also like to experiment with using monotypes as a background and overlaying other prints over them.