CAMBRIDGE.- Edgar Degas’s (1834-1917) sense of humour is being explored through an exhibition looking at three caricaturists and satirists whose work he collected in large numbers: Honoré Daumier (1808-79), Paul Gavarni (1804-66) and Charles Keene (1823-91).

The exhibition Degas, Caricature and Modernity provides a new perspective on Degas as a great artist. It shows how Degas sought inspiration in what was seen as the lowliest art forms, and his ‘rollicking and somewhat bear-like sense of fun’ as described by his friend Walter Sickert (1860-1942). It is part of a season of events at the Fitzwilliam celebrating the art and times of Degas that marks the centenary of the artist’s death, each supporting the major loan exhibition Degas: a passion for perfection.

Jane Munro, Keeper of Paintings, Drawings and Prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum commented: “There is a modernity to these caricatures, a real sense of the Paris Degas knew, the Paris of his day. He was a keen observer of people, including the peculiarity of modern city life. Friends and acquaintances relished his banter, anecdotes and piercing mimicry, even if they were sometimes subjected to the lashing of what Degas himself called his ‘wicked tongue’. In this centennial year of the artist’s death we wanted to inject a note of animation and to show a facet of his character that is perhaps less widely appreciated: his humour and keen appreciation of the absurdity of human existence.”

Satirical prints were highly popular in Europe at the end of the 19th century and were printed in great numbers. Those selected for the exhibition are by artists whose work Degas was known to enjoy and collect. Their everyday subjects captured a vivid impression of life at the time, referred to by the writer Charles Baudelaire as ‘the epic and heroic quality of modern life’, which tallied with Degas and his contemporaries in their interest in modernity.

The three artists featured all drew inspiration from observing and poking fun at the characters and customs of modern life as they knew it: Daumier lampooning the government, the professions and the French bourgeoisie; Gavarni creating comic characters from the people he saw in the city of Paris; and Punch contributor Keene creating social satire of lower and middle class life in England.


The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK (exhibition: Tuesday 12 September 2017 to Sunday 21 January 2018)