Viscount Lepic and His Daughters Crossing the Place de la Concorde
André Dombrowski describes the political content in Degas’s Place de la Concorde:
“Degas’s Place de la Concorde seems to draw from the operations of popular illustration more than other Impressionist paintings – in its willingness to make the politics of form a visible, rather than suppressed, text – even if it does so only obliquely, through placement, overlap, and erasure. As was first noted by Kirk Varnedoe, the black top hat of Viscount Ludovic-Napoleon Lepic…covers James Pradier’s late 1830s sculpture of the city of Strasbourg, so recently lost to the Prussians, along with Alsace and Lorraine. The statue functioned as THE site of national mourning for Parisians during the Siege of Strasbourg in September 1870, the long and difficult Siege of Paris that winter, and especially after the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by the newly founded German Kaiserreich in the spring of 1871. It was permanently overwhelmed with wreaths, garlands, and flags, in a gesture uncannily echoing Degas’s placement of Lepic’s hat.
Yet it has escaped observation how profoundly the hat marries other elements in the painting with similar political resonances: the accentuations of right and left; the tricolor bowtie of the figure on the left; Lepic’s red chest decoration that looks like the ribbon of the Legion d’Honneur. In the largely muted monochrome of the painting, these elements of bright color…stand out dramatically; they are meant to be noticed. The composition and sartorial choices are key to a full sociohistoric reading of the painting. …Reading Degas’s highly staged compositional devices from the viewpoint of its audience in about 1875, however, uncovers a range of new meanings for the painting.
The overlap of hat and statue should not be understood as a means of forgetting, displacing, or erasing history but rather as an index of the then current state of the Third Republic’s political turmoil, inconclusive and contested as it was. ….I propose, the painting is an assessment of the contemporary – read 1875 – unstable political landscape of the early Third Republic, making its pictorial fragmentation resonant with political fragmentation, and vice versa.”
“The fortuitous covering of Strasbourg speaks to the inevitability of Lepic’s belonging to the wrong side of France’s political future. This fact could perhaps explain why he is in the painting to begin with and why Degas positioned him in such a precarious date with history itself.
Fluctuating, deeply unstable, and momentary, the overlap between hat and statue appears internally conflicted as to its own meanings. It signals all and nothing, presence and absence, at the same time, presenting a solution to the crisis in representation that is the history of the Place de la Concorde itself…”
André Dombrowski, “History, Memory, and Instantaneity in Edgar Degas’s Place de la Concorde,” The Art Bulletin (June 2011), 195-97, 215.
Nancy Forgione makes an observation about Degas’s Viscount Lepic:
“Place de la Concorde is rare among paintings of the period that feature walking in Paris in that, owing to its air of disconnection, it incorporates a feeling often described as alienation.”
Nancy Forgione, “Everyday Life in Motion: The Art of Walking in Late-Nineteenth-Century Paris,” The Art Bulletin, vol. 87, no. 4 (December 2005): 671.
Mari Meller discusses changes Degas made in Viscount Lepic based on a recent technical examination:
“The troubled history of Degas’s Place de la Concorde of 1875-77 has inevitably affected its treatment in the literature. Max Liebermann, Julius Meier-Graefe and others wrote about the picture with the benefit of having seen it. Those who discussed it after the Second World War were less fortunate [it was presumed destroyed in the bombing of Dresden in February 1945], and had to base their discussion on reproductions alone. Political changes have now made it possible to view the work itself in the Hermitage, St Petersburg, and technical examination of it has revealed some significant fresh information.”
In Albert Kostenevich’s publication of 1995, incorporating a report on the laboratory examination carried out on the painting for the Hermitage Museum, he notes most interestingly that at the lower edge a strip of painted canvas six or seven centimeters wide is folded behind the stretcher. Kostenevich indicates that this was done by the artist after the canvas had been trimmed, and quite a while after the painting was finished, since the paint was completely dray before being restretched.
“In the canvas’s original form, both the space of the square and the figures were larger, the format less frieze-like. The passer-by on the left was comically, even bizzarely, inhumanly long, more like the lamp-post from which originally he may have derived. Kostenevich emphasizes that this marginalized male figure is a portrait (see below). The figure of Eylau [younger daughter] originally suggested even less motion than does the truncated form we see today. The lines of her coat were firmly parallel both to the passer-by on the left and the frame to the right, so that she too became something of a vertical piece of framing. Both figures counterpoint in a rhythm of forms the oblique presence of Lepic.”
“Recent technical examination of the picture with infrared photography and X-radiography has provided some pointers to its compositional genesis and development. Kostenevich summarizes some of these as follows: ‘under infrared light, it can be seen that the painting underwent some revision. In particular, changes in the contours of the dog and in Eylau’s silhouette are revealed, and it is clear that her clothing has been repainted. Originally, the lines of her coat were not vertical, as they became, buy diagonal, perhaps explained by a different positioning of the figure.’…It is an open question how much time passed between the first and the second version and what stimulated Degas to change it.”
Meller, Mari Kálmán. “Degas’s Place de la Concorde: Vicomte Lepic and His Daughters,” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 145, no. 1201 (April 2003): 273, 276, 277.
Ludovic Lepic Holding His Dog, 1889. Pastel (The Cleveland Museum of Art)