Impressionist painter and draftsman Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas was one of the preeminent peintres-graveurs (painter-printmakers) of his time. The term refers to nineteenth-century painters who created their own printed compositions as opposed to those who made reproductive prints based on the work of others. Degas had a rather unusual approach to making prints, which he did for his own private experience and experimentation rather than for a public audience. Thus, although he completed approximately sixty-six printed compositions, only four of these were published in editions during his lifetime. The bulk of his graphic output consists of trial proofs, working proofs, states, variants, unique monotypes, and hand-colored impressions that document the tireless reworking, scraping, and erasing that were part of his artistic process.
Degas’s involvement with prints is visible throughout his career. He copied Old Master etchings by Rembrandt and Velázquez as an early form of study; later he made lithographs of modern urban scenes, using the café-concert, theater, ballet, and streets of Paris as his subjects. He kept an etching press in his studio and constantly experimented by combining mediums and using unorthodox tools. He even planned a never-realized journal, Le Jour et la nuit, with artist friends Mary Cassatt, Camille Pissarro, and Félix Bracquemond that would have issued original prints to subscribers. In addition, Degas was perhaps the most prolific and innovative practitioner of monotype during the nineteenth century, completing hundreds of compositions during his lifetime. These two monotypes, among fifty landscape motifs made between 1890 and 1893, were inspired by a twenty-day carriage trip through Burgundy. Loosely executed and almost abstract, they depict the idea of a landscape rather than any particular view or location, a concept that the artist referred to as “imaginary landscapes.”
Publication excerpt from an essay by Sarah Suzuki, in Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 41.