The Lovely Degas Exhibit at the Denver Art Museum

I like museums. I write about ’em all the time, and we in Denver are blessed with our fair share of really good museums and galleries, including the beautiful Denver Art Museum. The outside is striking and is probably the most unusual architectural feature in the greater downtown Denver area, as you can see:

denver art museum exterior

Known as The Hamilton Building, it was designed as a joint venture by Studio Daniel Libeskind and Denver firm Davis Partnership Architects. This particular building opened on October 7, 2006, and is clad in titanium and glass. There’s also a huge north tower that’s considerably less attractive – to my eyes – and is actually closed for a major construction project right now. So the DAM overall is a bit of a jumble of different art from throughout the museum. But that’s not why we went, we went to see works from the life of the extraordinarily gifted artist Edgar Degas.

Even as you walk into the separately ticketed area, there’s a promise of extraordinary art that hangs in the air like the sigh of a running horse and the flowery scent of those distant ballet studios Degas frequented in Paris a hundred years ago:

denver art museum degas exhibit opening area

Don’t know much about Degas? That’s okay, here’s a thumbnail from

Born on July 19, 1834, in Paris, France, Edgar Degas went on to study at the École des Beaux-Arts (formerly the Académie des Beaux-Arts) in Paris and became renowned as a stellar portraitist, fusing Impressionistic sensibilities with traditional approaches. Both a painter and sculptor, Degas enjoyed capturing female dancers and played with unusual angles and ideas around centering. His work influenced several major modern artists, including Pablo Picasso. Degas died in Paris in 1917.

What most struck me was his extraordinary range of skills. He worked in an astonishing number of media, demonstrating mastery of all, as is highlighted in the exhibit. It’s organized both chronologically and by theme, so his fascination with bathing women is reflected in a variety of his works, as is his delight in horses, horse racing and the musculature of the horse itself. Mostly, though, Degas is known for his sketches and paintings related to ballet and women both performing ballet and practicing.

While I find many of the faces in his works unattractive, I also admit that it challenges me to contemplate my own beliefs around beauty; what’s to say who is and isn’t beautiful? I’m not alone in that either: When Degas first showed many of his women bathing works, they were met both with delight and scorn, the latter from critics who complained that the women portrayed where ugly. His goal was just to portray the reality of their appearances, highlighting that painters constantly manipulated their images, decades before Photoshop came on the scene.

It’s a terrific and absorbing exhibit that’s well worth the additional ticket price at the Denver Art Museum and you really should head over to see it before it leaves Denver. If you’re artistic, bring a sketch pad and some pencils [no charcoal please. too messy] as there are various spots where you might find yourself inspired to try and capture some of what he painted, sketched or sculpted.

One thing I found a bit ironic was that the narrated tour device was essentially a cellphone that you held up to your ear. So instead of people talking about the art and their reactions to each piece, they were all on their darn phones. Well, sort of…

people enjoying exhibit, degas, denver art museum

I listened to the first few snippets, but then gave up and went through reading the plaques and talking with others who weren’t listening. Tip: If you do want to listen, bring earbuds. You can plug ’em into the unit and it’ll be much more pleasant than holding the device up to your ear for an hour.

Here are some photos of the works that most struck me as we explored the exhibit ourselves:

Degas Study for Scene from the Steeplechase

Above: Edgar Degas, Study for Scene from the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey.

degas - horse with head lowered

Above: Edgar Degas, Horse with Head Lowered.

degas The Conversation

Above: Edgar Degas, The Conversation.

degas three dancers

Above: Edgar Degas, Three Dancers.

degas the dancing lesson

Above: Edgar Degas, The Dancing Lesson.

degas dancer adjusting her slipper

Above: Edgar Degas, Dancer Adjusting Her Slipper.

Disclosure: The Denver Art Museum was kind enough to offer me a pair of tickets to the Degas exhibit in return for my writeup here. Much appreciated.

Also note: All photos taken with an Apple iPhone X without flash. Pretty darn good results, eh?

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