Degas, At the Races in the Countryside
BETH HARRIS: It's often the case that when you're traveling with the baby, it demands a lot of attention. And that's what's happening in this small painting by Degas called "At the Races in the Countryside." STEVEN ZUCKER: And that infant is clearly the center of this family's attention. BETH HARRIS: And their dog's attention too. STEVEN ZUCKER: Yes, it's true. In fact, it only looks like the horses are perhaps not paying attention. So it's such an interesting composition. It's Degas at his most playful. We see a painting that seems as if it is uncomposed, as if it were almost a snapshot. BETH HARRIS: And that's what Degas is so good at, is making his paintings, which are so carefully composed, seem as though it's a scene that he just happened to come upon. And I think we're used to this because of photography. STEVEN ZUCKER: But in the 19th century, this would have been pretty outrageous. I mean, look at the way he's cropped the wagon wheels. He's cropped the horses. They don't have the bottom of their legs. And then he gets even more playful. Not only is the family group sort of pushed a little bit too far to the right, but then there's this very large spatial gap as we move into the middle ground where the figures are really small. I'm particularly fond of the way that little horse seems to just be standing on the back of the carriage. BETH HARRIS: Or there's another tiny figure that seems to be perched on the back of the brown horse in the foreground. STEVEN ZUCKER: These are incongruities that the Academy would, of course, have never allowed, but that Degas seems to really relish. BETH HARRIS: In an academic painting, we expect things to make sense. We expect all the forms to be included whole within the frame of the painting. We expect to be able to read a recession into space so that, for example, those figures that look so small would make sense, and we would understand the distance between the foreground and the background. But here Degas has painted a flat, green expanse that we can't really read as depth. STEVEN ZUCKER: But of course, the most interesting part of this painting for me is contained within the carriage itself. It's the family and their interaction. BETH HARRIS: It's really very sweet. And there is all of that attention on the infant, and whether it's going to eat, and whether it's going to stop being fussy. Historically, upper class women often didn't nurse their own children and would hire women who were known as wet nurses who would nurse infants. STEVEN ZUCKER: So a very intimate kind of nanny, I think you could say. BETH HARRIS: I think so. STEVEN ZUCKER: And actually you can see her breast is exposed, and all of the figures are looking down at the child. So issues of class are very much built into this painting. BETH HARRIS: An upper class women would certainly not reveal herself in this way. STEVEN ZUCKER: The wet nurse is, in a sense, an accoutrement of the life of the upper class, and very much the way that little black boxer is as well, that little dog. BETH HARRIS: The dog and the family that it belongs to appear very aristocratic to me. The dog appears like a very specific breed and is sitting kind of upright. And the man has a top hat on, is clearly very well dressed. His wife is very well dressed. And that does contrast with the informality of the working class wet nurse that we see. STEVEN ZUCKER: And of course, we're in an environment which is about horse racing. This is at a time when horse racing was an extremely privileged sport. So we are in this very genteel and very fashionable environment. And yet we have this moment of informality within that. BETH HARRIS: We have a scene of modern upper class leisure, and this is a very typical Impressionist subject. And it's an entirely new subject. And it's really the beginnings of what we consider modern art, a kind of embracing of the real urban world of Paris in the second half of the 19th century.