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A Master of Observation and Memory

The Monitor invites you to sit in on a series of conversations with curators at major art museums on choice objects in their collections

This painting is a delicate work that requires patient study, I think, to pull out of it all the little details that together make it a really magical object," says George Shackelford.

Dr. Shackelford became curator of European paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, last year. He was previously at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Doubtless his choice of this gem by the French 19th-century master was influenced by his own extensive studies of and writings on Edgar Degas.

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The picture, though traditionally titled "Carriage at the Races," Shackelford says, was shown as "Aux Courses en Province" ("At the Races in the Countryside") in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874 Paris.

"The main thing is that this is not the city; these are people in the countryside. They are at a race meeting, not in the environs of Paris, but almost certainly in Normandy. This is where Paul Valpinon - the man in the top hat in the carriage, whom Degas had known since childhood - had an estate."

Shackelford enthusiastically admires this painting's "breadth of landscape" and "wonderful sky." Not only is it a "terrific landscape painting" and a "modern genre picture," it also "combines, as many Degas paintings do at this period, an element of portraiture that is almost hidden."

You might, he suggests, "just take these people for inventions. But in fact, Degas knew them intimately." The picture is in line with the artist's injunction at this time to "do portraits of people in typical attitudes." (A further example is Degas's picture of a man playing a bassoon in the orchestra of the opera: It is both a portrait of an individual and of an orchestra.)

"Here we have a portrait of a family that is also a scene of a family at the races. The center of attention is not the horses in the background. It is the Valpinons' baby, asleep on the woman's lap."

The composition was the result of "painstaking deliberation," Shackelford says. Evidence shows that Degas "shifted figures, working hard on placing them exactly." He refined even the way the bulldog sits. Finally, "everyone's attention goes down to that child: the man, the two women, the dog. Everybody's focused there."

"And it's a brilliant observation of how color is affected by light and shade. The dress, for example, is one color in the shade and another very different color in the light."

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Shackelford agrees with other commentators that this Degas is like a Dutch landscape. "It also, obviously, has a relationship to English prints - in particular, the rocking-horse steeds in the background with their legs out both front and back."

Whatever his influences, Degas's painting is unique in its "wild juxtapositions of scale." Shackelford points to "these cropped figures in the foreground, where the horses barely have room to be in the painting, and then this telescoping vision back past the man in the cart on the left - don't you love him? And these tiny distant figures. Can you see the woman with an umbrella just above the splashboard of the carriage? And the other man above the horse's reins? Wonderful little figures that give you a sense of the deep space."

'THIS is an outdoor painting - uncharacteristic in Degas's art. The vast percentage of his work deals with indoor activities - but this is in that group of racing images or pure landscape that forms a real nugget of interesting work from the 1860s till the '90s.

"However, you understand that it is not painted from life?

"Degas had a fantastic visual memory; almost all his pictures are made in the studio from memory and with the aid of drawings. He occasionally painted in the landscape, in spite of the fact that he once said to Ambroise Vollard: 'Do you know what I think of people that work out in the open? If I were the government, I would have a special brigade of gendarmes to keep an eye on [them].... Oh - I don't mean to kill anyone; just a little dose of birdshot now and then as a warning.' "

"In fact, though, he did a lot of landscapes in pastel, probably with the motif in front of him, at the time of [this] oil painting," Shackelford says, "and many of them look rather like it. But to paint a picture like this, with its sense of delicacy and refinement, was a studio action."

Degas was, to a degree, at odds with his Impressionist contemporaries. He did not "simply want to be a receiver and transcriber of impressions," Shackelford says. "He is a very calculating creator of artificial compositions that give the intense sensation of real experience. I think that is what we have going on here. You feel very much present. This is by virtue of a number of devices. One is the way he brings forward the carriage and the horses so that you cannot see them all at once. The window of the picture cuts them off, in the same way that you can't see the bottoms of things that are very close to you.

"He depicts what he sees, but in a way that makes sure we understand that he is in control."

* Fourth in a series. Previous stories ran Feb. 17, 24, and March 3.

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