Edgar Degas, Theater Box, 1885

Where are They Now? Degas in Melbourne and Houston

August 10, 2016
– By Marcela Guerrero, curatorial fellow

One of the most famous theater boxes in art will soon make a transatlantic voyage from Melbourne to Houston. The Hammer Museum’s Theater Box by Edgar Degas—a pastel measuring 23 7/16 x 17 3/8 inches from 1885—is currently part of the traveling exhibition Degas: A New Vision, a show that opened on June 24 and will remain on view until September 18 at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne, Australia. Curated by Henri Loyrette, former director of the Musée du Louvre in Paris, and Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), the exhibition will be on view at the latter institution, and the show’s only US venue, from October 16, 2016 through January 8, 2017. With some 200 works gathered from public and private collections from around the globe, Degas: A New Vision has been touted as the most significant international survey of the work of this French Impressionist artist in the last thirty years. 

Edgar Degas, Theater Box, 1885
Theater Box

Viewers Down Under and in the Deep South will have the chance to see for the first time paintings and sculptures that haven’t been shown before in international exhibitions such as those loaned by The Burrell Collection in Glasgow, Scotland. On view, too, is one of our three Degas pastels, Theater Box, which is part of the Armand Hammer Collection. Particularly noteworthy about this work is that, contrary to common expectation, Degas produced few studies of the spectators at the Opéra. This particular work skillfully captures the contrast between the artificial lights onstage and the dim lighting that covers the viewer. The upper half of the painting offers magical effects of color and movement—dancers in mid-performance crowd the stage in vividly colored tutus. In contrast, the bottom half of Theater Box is sparser but no less riveting. Significantly darker than the stage in the background, the woman in the theater box contains an enigma: is she alone, or whose arm appears to her left? Could it be a female companion holding a monocular or a glove in her hand just the same way our main spectator holds one of these two objects in her right hand? Do we dare fathom that Degas has miscalculated his perspective, or has he wryly included two perspectives the way Édouard Manet had done three years earlier in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère from 1882? Mistake or not, the play between light and dark, busier and sparser is enough to capture our attention.

Those interested in learning more about the exhibition should purchase or borrow from your local library the monographic publication Degas: A New Vision that accompanies the show. You can also check out the exhibition’s website, which provides a solid starting point to the life and work of Edgar Degas. While you’re there, do not forget to click on the “Key Works” tab—a digital wall of the best artworks in the show and where our Theater Box makes an appearance. 

This is not the first time we have said an “until soon” to our cherished Theater Box. In 2008 we loaned the work to the Portland Art Museum for an exhibition entitled The Dancer: Degas, Forain, and Toulouse-Lautrec curated by Annette Dixon. This time, however, the à bientôt is for a little longer. From Melbourne to Houston to Los Angeles, our gem is giving viewers on both sides of the world prime access into the nightlife of late nineteenth century Paris.