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Edgar Degas

Strike a Pose
Edgar Degas<br>French, 1834-1917<br><I>Mademoiselle Hortense Valpinçon</I>, 1871<br>Oil on mattress ticking<br>The John R. Van Derlip Fund
zoom Edgar Degas
French, 1834-1917
Mademoiselle Hortense Valpinçon, 1871
Oil on mattress ticking
The John R. Van Derlip Fund


Although Degas rarely painted portraits to make money, he sometimes painted his family and friends. He had a soft spot for children, and throughout his life he painted pictures of his nieces and nephews and also the sons and daughters of his friends. The girl in this portrait is Hortense Valpinçon, the daughter of his childhood friend Paul.

Degas didn’t paint Hortense in a formal pose. Instead he had her lean casually against the end of a table. She is dressed simply, in a white long-sleeved apron, black dress, cream shawl, and straw hat. Her plain clothing contrasts with the bold patterns on the wall, tablecloth, and draped fabric.

Hortense is adorable, alert, and calculating. In her hand she holds a piece of apple. Degas gave her an apple as a reward for posing, and throughout the sitting she nibbled away. Now, down to her last slice, she wonders whether she should eat it or not. Even though the painting took several days, Degas captured this moment as if in a snapshot.

Looking at this portrait, we can get an idea of how Degas worked. The dashed black lines around Hortense’s back suggest that he kept adding details to the little girl’s figure. A closer look at the area around her hands reveals how he repainted them.

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1. Degas had been friends with Hortense’s father, Paul, since their school days.
Edgar Degas, Portrait of Paul Valpinçon, about 1855, oil on canvas, gift of David M. Daniels in memory of Frances H. Daniels
2. Degas was the eldest of five children. This is his sister Marguerite.
Edgar Degas, Portrait of Marguerite Degas, 19th century, black chalk on brown paper heightened with white, gift of David M. Daniels
3. Here Degas’s younger brother is posing as a suave gentleman.
Edgar Degas, Achille Degas, 1868-72, oil wash and graphite on paper mounted on canvas, bequest of Putnam Dana McMillan


April 2009