In 1876, Ludovic-Napoleon Lepic introduced his friend Edgar Degas to the technique of monotype. In fact the first monotype signed by Degas, is co signed by Lepic as well. Degas was not a novice to printmaking, he had mad a few etchings earlier in his career, but the freedom of monotype from the time, effort and chemicals of etching and lithography, captured his imagination.
Monotype is drawing with printers ink on a plate, such as a blank zinc or copper etching plate and then running it through the press to achieve an image on paper. Only one true print could be made, as successive runs of the plate through the press result in a fainter image each time, but the image on the plate can be reworked endlessly to create numerous states of the print. Degas was captivated with this printing process and in nearly 10 years created over 300 monotypes. Degas would even use the fainter second to third pulls as basis of pastel, or charcoal drawings. His peers described Degas as in a frenzy of printmaking and were taken aback at how thoroughly he embraced this technique.
For Degas, the monotype was freeing and its ease and quickness of execution enabled him to experiment endlessly with his drawing and mark making on the plate. These works become looser in style and technique until the point of nearly abstraction. Degas would never abandon subject matter, but some of the landscapes he produced with this method, almost lose their objectiveness.
“Beside the Sea,” is an early monotype from around 1876 - 1877. It is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, but rarely on view. I happened to catch my eye in the Museum of Modern Art exhibition A Strange New Beauty. It is a spare composition of a female with her back to the picture plane looking at the water as a steamship sails by near the horizon. All of the activity of the image happens at the bottom of the page. The top half as the barest indication of atmosphere. The figure and landscape, look quickly, but deftly sketched with a brush, or maybe a rag. There are few tones and the shapes are simple, but even with these barest of marks, Degas has given an image that conveys a sense of deep space out to a horizon. We can tell that the figure is standing high above the shore, yet we do not see where her feet are placed. There is the feeling of the woman’s clothing being ruffled by the sea breeze, as well as the atmosphere of a overcast, but not a rainy day. This weather and atmosphere are communicated, even though the sky is left only the suggestion of the color of the sky at the edges. Degas mastery of his skills and his medium is clearly shown in this little print. He would make larger monotypes and more ambitious paintings, but his skills shine in this simple work.
Arthur Bruso © 2018