Using the Monotype to Create Infinite Possibilities

Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty at the Museum of Modern Art through Sunday, July 24, 2016

Edgar Degas, Dancer, circa 1976-77, (left) monotype (right) pastel and opaque watercolor over monotype
Edgar Degas, Dancer, circa 1876-77, (left) monotype (right) pastel and opaque watercolor over monotype

When we think of Degas, we think of painting. We imagine ballerinas in white tutus and pointe shoes while Degas is holding a palette with a thumb-hole and brush, poised, ready to create and inspire. It’s a traditional image, familiar to all. But did you know Degas the printer? Or Degas the rule-breaker?

How Did Degas Use the Monotype?

Monotype is thought to be discovered in the late 17th Century but become more popular in the 19th century when artists like William Blake, Paul Gauguin, and Degas started using the method in their work.

Degas started working with monotype in the 1870s and he instantly fell in love with its possibilities. To create Dancer, Degas first drew on a glass plate then ran the painting through a press, transferring the black ink onto paper. Then, Degas the rule-breaker, ran the plate through the press a second time. The result was the creation of a “ghost” image, ethereal and illuminating. Enhanced using pastel and watercolor, or by smearing the ink with his fingers or a brush handle, Degas was able to vary tone and mood, capture movement or aspects of modern life such as landscapes from a moving train or the illuminated light from electricity. This was groundbreaking for its time.

Early Monotype Inspirations

Ludovic-Napoléon Lepic, Views from the Bank of the Scheldt, 1870-76 Sunrise ( left) and Rain (right), etchings with variable inking on paper

Degas was tremendously influenced by his long time friend and artist, Ludovic Lepic, who began using the monotype to create the same landscape at different times of day and weather conditions.

Lepic began with an etching. In etching, the plate is covered with a protective coat of resin. The artist then scratches his design through the resin with a needle and immerses the plate in a bath of acid, which “bites” the metal wherever the resin has been removed. The resin is removed and the artist inks the plate pushing black ink into the etched grooves. Then the surface is wiped clean leaving only the etched areas retaining ink. The plate is covered with paper and passed through a press. This process is repeated for each print to create an edition of identical prints or multiples.

In the above two examples above, Sunrise (left) and Rain (right), you can see the same horizon line, vegetation and sailboat that were etched into the plate. Lepic ran the plate through the press again to make a ghost print. By wiping the excess ink differently on each plate Lepic created over 85 different monotypes of the same landscape. The variety of this approach is what fascinated Degas.

Edgar Degas, The Engraver Joseph Tourny , 1858, etching on paper
Edgar Degas, The Engraver Joseph Tourny , 1858, etching on paper

Degas was also influenced by the Master Etcher, Rembrandt (1606–1669), the great innovator and experimenter in this medium, often handling traditional materials in unconventional ways.

Rembrandt’s great gift as an etcher lay in preserving a sense of spontaneity while scrupulously attending to close detail. Rembrandt sometimes took several years to finish a plate to his satisfaction, and he sold prints from the various states of his work. It is not uncommon to find as many as four or five different states of the same etching; sometimes the changes are minor and sometimes radical.

In The Engraver above you can see Rembrandt’s influence on Degas both in the portrait composition and the mood achieved by the inking and wiping of each plate.

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Polaroid transfer (left) Polaroid emulsion lift (right)

Similar Modern Photographic Techniques

A technique in Polaroid photography yields a similar feel as some of Degas paintings over monotype. “Polaroid transfers” and “Polaroid emulsion lift” is created through a process in which, after an image is developed on the Polaroid paper, the paper can be separated from the chemicals and either side can then be transferred onto another type of medium (glass, paper, wood, metal, etc.) The transfer has the look of a first pressed monotype, a shadow of the original developed image. With the emulsion lift, the image has movement and depth. Degas was not only a rebel but also a true visionary. His affinity for monotype was proof of his instinctual knowledge that this artistic method would prove its legacy and influence throughout the ages.

Edgar Degas, Heads of a Man and a Woman (1877–80), monotype on paper
Edgar Degas, Heads of a Man and a Woman (1877–80), monotype on paper

How Have Degas Monotypes Sold at Auction?

A similar work to Heads of a Man and a Woman, 9.1” x 11.2”, sold at Christie’s London, March 29, 2011, for $59,514 including premium exceeding the presale estimate of $23,000-$32,000.

Degas’ Chanteuse de Café-Concert, A pastel over monotype, ca. 1875–1876, 9.1” x 11.2”, sold for $362,500 including premium exceeding the presale estimate of $250,000-350,000 at Sotheby’s New York, November 2, 2012. While this print was not part of this exhibit you can view a photo here.

About the Museum of Modern Art Exhibition

The Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty exhibit includes 189 works from 89 lenders; half from the US and half from outside; half are from public collections and half from private. There was an enormous effort by the curatorial staff to locate pairs that include a first impression and then a second ghost impression with pastel or other media to communicate the depth and breadth of Degas’ experimentation with monotypes.

Be sure and take advantage of the free audio headset with insightful commentary by Jodi Hauptman, Senior Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints.

Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W 53rd St, New York, NY, through Sunday, July 24, 2016, open daily 10:30-5:30, member early hours: 9:30-10:30.

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