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One Man's Treasure

The Lightner Museum mounts unconventional Degas exhibition

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"Art is not what you see, but what you make others see,” said French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas. Art challenges us to see life anew or to notice beauty in the minute, like the graceful movement of a dancer or a smile’s seductive curve. Art enchants us. It inspires. And if it’s great, it draws a crowd.

Edgar Degas is coming to St. Augustine, or at least his artwork is. The exhibition Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist features more than 100 original works by Degas and his contemporaries, including Mary Cassatt, Édouard Manet, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Alfred Stevens, Camille Pissarro and Paul Cézanne. Degas himself painted 50 pieces, which span his entire creative life. The show, which the Lightner Museum opened April 12, is up through June 16.

The Lightner’s third-floor mezzanine is a stunning locale for the gilt-framed artwork lining its grand corridors. “Half of art is presentation,” Bob Harper, Lightner Museum executive director, explained to me. It’s true. It’s visually breathtaking. Visitors can trace young Degas’ nascent drawing skills, catch glimpses of future famous masterpieces in his sketches, and uncover notes of the depression and despair that engulfed his tumultuous later years.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917) is celebrated for the revolutionary ways in which he captured light and movement in his art, though he’s nearly as famous for his cantankerous personality as he is for his depictions of dancers. He’s considered a founder of the Impressionist Movement, yet Degas didn’t identify as an Impressionist. He regarded himself as a Realist; he aimed to represent life as he saw it. Portraiture fascinated him, as did horses and horse-racing. Degas was prolifically creative, with a legacy of hundreds, perhaps thousands of drawings, prints and sculptures. More than 100 years after his death, the name is still widely recognized and the work graces museums and private collections worldwide.

The works featured in The Private Impressionist are all from one such private collection, that of Robert Flynn Johnson, a professor and curator of collections at Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts & the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco for more than 40 years. Johnson purchased his first Degas print in 1973 and hasn’t stopped collecting since.

“This is a totally different type of exhibit. It appeals to a totally different audience,” Bob Harper told Folio Weekly. “The collection is interesting because it’s an individual’s collection. You won’t see major pieces by Degas, but you’ll see a great sample of his work.”

“This is important as a collection,” added Lightner curator Barry Myers. “You get real insight into the mind of a collector and into the real passion of someone who has built a collection and knows it intimately.”

These aren’t major pieces—they’re purchased on a curator’s salary—but they’re intriguing and unique.

St. Augustine is among several cities selected to host the collection. Johnson’s treasures include drawings, lithographs and monotypes by Degas, the artist’s personal photographs, a letter Degas wrote to another artist, and a bronze sculpture.

There’s Jockey on Horseback in Profile, a rough graphite sketch on tracing paper (ca. 1860-’65). Achille Degas is a portrait of Degas’ favored brother in graphite on textured, dark cream-tone paper (ca. 1853). Before the Race (ca. 1895) is distinctly Impressionistic in style, a color lithograph on lightweight tan wove paper by Edgar Degas and Auguste Clot.

Somewhat surprisingly, not many ballerinas are seen here; one exception is Danseuse Prés du Poêle, a delicate lithograph with chine appliqué on thin wove paper from the portfolio Quinze Lithographies by Degas and George William Thomley (ca. 1888-’89).

This is a collection to be savored slowly and considered carefully. “If you read the labels, you understand what this exhibit is all about and the interrelationship of the artist and his friends,” Myers explained. “It’s important to keep that history alive. It’s important for St. Augustine, in that Edgar Degas is a really well-known artist and it’s important to bring a little bit of that history to the local level.”

This isn’t the first time the Lightner Museum has hosted a major traveling exhibition. Dressing Downton–Changing Fashion for Changing Times (October 2017-January 2018) featured costumes, accessories and jewelry from the hit PBS TV show Downton Abbey. It was an immense success.

“We wanted to keep the momentum going with special exhibits; it took us a while to find something we felt would be appropriate for us,” said Myers. “One of the things that sold me on this exhibit is the fact that, even though we don’t have any of Degas’ paintings in the collection, we have several of his contemporaries’ [paintings], people he was friends with, and minor works by those artists are in this exhibit. We have some major works by those artists. What I’ve done is incorporate a lot of things from the museum collection in the show.”

Myers has worked at Lightner Museum for 25 years, and has been its curator for 15 years. He loves the collection and the historic former Alcazar Hotel that houses it. He also loves bringing great art—and great artists—to Northeast Florida and finding novel ways to make history come alive for a new generation. The Edgar Degas exhibit pushes the Lightner slightly outside its St. Augustine historical niche, triangulating a course among classical 19th-century art and contemporary pop culture and modern art—of which Degas is universally considered a pioneer.

“The Degas exhibit—sort of like the Downton Abbey effect—it’s a big name that will draw people. Everyone knows who Degas was, just about,” Myers explained. “But they’re not familiar with his contemporaries. Degas is a household name. Alfred Stevens, maybe not so much, or Jean-Léon Gérôme. These were really well-known artists in their day, but they don’t have that cachet today. When we’re looking back at 19th-century art, those artists aren’t as well known today. Like Pablo Picasso—everybody knows what a Picasso looked like, but not everybody knows what an Alfred Stevens looked like.”

Despite a legendary moodiness, Degas had a far-reaching and deeply interconnected social circle. “I love the fact that Degas was so in touch with other artists in his time period,” Myers said. “When you read labels on this collection and see how he interacted with other artists, his influence on other artists, and their influence on him, it’s really fascinating.”

Collector Johnson must have felt much the same because, as his fascination with Degas grew, he expanded his collection to include works by the artist’s closest friends. Very few portraits from life exist. Visitors have the rare chance to see two of them: Portrait of Degas (ca. 1890) in black crayon and Degas in Old Age (ca. 1917) in black crayon on blue wove paper, both by Pierre-Georges Jeannoit.

Another interesting point of contemplation can be found in Portrait of Edgar Degas in Old Age and Portrait of Mary Cassatt in Old Age, both by Joseph Goldyne (ca. 1983). The works are displayed side by side, though facing away from each other. Degas and Cassatt shared a deep friendship and working relationship for 40 years. Does the odd portrait placement imply something about their relationship in the dusk of life?

Perhaps that’s a question to ask Johnson himself when he visits his treasures on May 2. The collector discusses “Chasing Degas: My Four Decades Collecting This Artist and His Circle.” Attendees will hear firsthand about Johnson’s passion for all things Degas and the wild adventures he’s experienced while amassing this collection.

Myers hopes this Degas exhibit will encourage new guests to visit Lightner Museum and regulars to visit more often. “It’s a beautiful exhibit. We seldom get visitors from Jacksonville into the museum, up until Downton Abbey. We had so many comment that they didn’t even know we existed and how did they not know us?” Myers recalled. “It’ll be good to bring them down to be exposed to the museum. Even if it weren’t Degas, it’s a fabulous collection. I think it’s an untapped resource. People just don’t know that we exist and I want to get the word out that we have this fabulous collection.”

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