The Corcoran Gallery of Art, best known for its great American collections, also owns close to 4,000 works by European artists and craftsmen, many bequeathed in 1926 by William A. Clark, a Montana copper baron who became a U.S. senator.
In this gift were about 80 drawings, including works by Honore Daumier and Jean Francois Millet. The jewels among the drawings, however, were four pastels by Edgar Degas that focus on cafe life in Paris in the 1870s. Rarely displayed because works on paper are so susceptible to damage by light, they can always be seen by making an appointment at the Corcoran's prints and drawings study room. "The Cafe Concert," circa 1877, is an especially luscious and seductive work, reflecting both Degas' mastery of the pastel medium and his interest in Japanese prints, the latter probably responsible for the asymmetrical composition with its elevated perspective. In this dramatically lit scene, we find ourselves in the audience, looking over the musicians, one in a domed bowler hat. Onstage are the cabaret singers (actually ladies of the evening), holding fans or flowers, used to communicate with potential patrons in the audience.
Though a social document, no judgments are made. In fact, Degas lived this cafe life and obviously reveled in its sheer visual pleasure.
It was long said that Degas used pastels -- paint pigment mixed with a binder and molded into sticks -- because of his failing eyesight, which made sharp lines and precise definition of forms difficult. That may have been part of it, but he also obviously loved the colors and textures that only pastels make possible. This drawing shows him at the top of his form. The Degas can be viewed, by appointment, in the gallery's study and storage room (call 202-638-3211).