The Polk Museum of Art

Through March 24, 2019

Any visit to an art museum or gallery brings with it a certain amount of expectation: the guest expects to see the best of an artist’s work. Art institutions worldwide pride themselves on collecting an artist’s masterpieces and spend hundreds of millions of dollars to do just that.  Rarely does it show the painstaking process of how an artist achieves greatness. But not doing that does a disservice to art enthusiasts, museum-goers and aspiring artists.

The Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland is correcting that omission with its exhibition, Degas: The Private Impressionist. Consisting primarily of drawings and other works on paper, this exhibition concentrates on the artist’s creative process. In this case, the artist is Edgar Degas, famous for his depictions of the ballet and closely associated with the French Impressionists. While the general public is familiar with Degas’ ballerinas, this exhibition shows how Degas became Degas.

The preliminary sketches and studies in this exhibit exemplify Degas’ masterful draftsmanship, and some drawings could stand as works of art on their own. A graphite drawing of a plough horse (c. 1860-1861) is profound in its simplicity and realism. Mademoiselle Dembowska, (c. 1858-1859), a study in black crayon, is an unfinished sketch of a child in whose face Degas captured a sense of quiet wonder.

The viewer also sees Degas’ take on works by masters of the Italian Renaissance such as Andrea Mantegna and Filippo Lippi. But the exhibition isn’t limited to the work of Degas alone. The curators wisely included works on paper by his contemporaries such as Mary Cassatt and Toulouse-Lautrec. Their inclusion illustrates how closely this circle of modernists worked to advance art in the 19th century, and their consistent influence on each other.

The exhibition’s success is that the curator chose to reveal parts of the art-making process that are typically hidden or discarded. In celebrating things never meant to be seen, the museum offers the viewer a rare gift: a glimpse into the making of an artist.

The Polk Museum of Art

800 E Palmetto St, Lakeland, FL 33801

Adrienne H. Lee is an Orlando-based art historian, writer, artist, and contributing writer for ArtScene Press.
Images courtesy of The Polk Museum of Art