Degas’s exploration of the world of the racetrack and steeplechase developed in tandem with his survey of other aspects of the modern world, notably the world of the dance. In his depictions of equestrian subjects as in his many scenes from the world of ballet and opera, Degas moved from the precise delineation of complex arrangements of figures in space in the first half of his career to a much broader, more atmospheric approach in the latter half. In works such as the Greentree Foundation’s Avant la course (lot *), Degas employs a fine brush and applications of thin layers of pigment to capture the musculature of the animals, the sheen of their coats and the details of the jockeys and their silks. Hacking to the Track (as the present work is known by its English title) is a more broadly brushed painting, composed of flat modernist patches of color, in which the artist employed greater contrasts of light and dark forms and asserted the dynamism of the composition over any specificity of details.
Although the artist was not an active participant himself, the popular pastime of equestrian sports fascinated Degas and featured prominently in his work throughout his career. The subject of horses and riders offered the artist a challenge both as a documentarist of modern life and as a technician of visual imagery. Here, Degas depicts the jockeys riding their horses out to the track in preparation for the race. The attitude and movement of each horse seems to respond and flow into another – from the long curved neck of one animal with its head hung down, to the upright stance of another with its ears pricked forward. Each jockey’s pose on his mount is similarly in contrast and harmony with the other. While the whole is a superb study in graceful rhythms of the riders and their mounts as set against the distant horizon line and the diagonal rush of tree trunks, the composition also draws inspiration from Degas’ lifelong study of the works of Antiquity and the Old Masters. Early in his career, the artist frequently sketched copies after great works of the past, and his early studies of the friezes of the Parthenon as well as heroic paintings of equestrian processions from the Renaissance era, specifically influenced the compositions of these long, horizontal canvases. Degas was fascinated with the ritual, repeated gestures and physical performance of the horses and riders, just as he was with dancers, and each subject served as a framework for his endless formal inventions and historical quotations.
John Rewald wrote on the following works as follows: “The actual subject of this painting is not horse racing; Degas only occasionally depicted the action of a race or the picturesque activities and people associated with them. Unlike de Dreux and Gericault (see lots **), both reportedly fine equestrians, Degas probably could not ride… (and) had no taste for their energetic and romantic portrayals. The main reason that Degas repeated these representations of horses is identical to that for his other recurring subjects: he wanted to express in pictorial terms the shapes and motions of bodies engaged in the performance of habitual activity," (John Rewald, The John Hay Whitney Collection, 1983, p. 40).
The horizontal format of this frieze-like composition had more often been used for studies of dance classes (see fig. 1). Jean Sutherland Boggs has observed that with regard to the frieze compositions of the Dance and their application to the equestrian subjects, “it was natural that Degas should think of horses and riders, particularly as he was becoming more immersed in the mysteries of landscape and natural light” (Degas at the Races, (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 155). In a discussion of the present work, Boggs goes on to comment that,
“A frieze composition from the early nineties is Hacking to the Track (cat. 95), which, it has often been pointed out, was strongly influenced by Degas’ early drawings after the Benozzo Gozzolis in the Medici-Riccardi palace in Florence (see fig. 2). Although not nearly as precise nor as decorative as Benozzo’s, the bare trunks in the background could be an acknowledgment of Degas’ admiration for the exquisite trees in the quattrocento master’s work. Tinterow, who found sources for four of the horses in this painting in Muybridge’s photographs in Animal Locomotion (see fig. 3), also suggests that the poplars in the background might be a reference to Monet’s poplar series of 1891-1892, exhibited at Durand-Ruel in 1892" (Degas at the Races, pp. 155-157).
The dating of Degas’ work presented many challenges to earlier historians – particularly as the artist so often repeated the same subjects throughout his career and often returned to painting sometimes a decade or more after their inception for further reworking. Initially dated to the early 1880s, when the composition might first have begun, stylistic analysis, the significance of the very shape of the canvas, and references within the picture to Degas’ later fascination with photography (and in particular the sequential studies of figures in motion by Edward Muybridge), has lead modern scholars to date the work to the 1890s. Gary Tinterow has written on the Greentree Foundation painting, stating that, “Hacking to the Race (an alternate title) is probably the last of a group of nine known jockey scenes that Degas executed in a panoramic format slightly wider than a double square.....This work has generally been assigned to the 1880s, but a date of c. 1895 seems more likely in view of what we now know. Certainly the painting must date to later than 1887, the year Muybridge’s corpus appeared. The drawings for the individual figures – fluent summary sketches that capture the carriage but not the character of the jockeys – seem to date to the first half of the 1890s. But the elegiac mood and the carefully syncopated movement of the horses suggest affinities with Degas’s dancers of the mid-1890s. The emphasis is no longer on bright silks or a brilliant sky, but on the subtly articulated limbs of the horses, rhythmically echoed by the line of poplars – themselves perhaps a reference to Monet’s serial views of poplars painted in 1891-92” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Degas, 1988-89, no. 304, p. 509).
Fig. 1, Edgar Degas, The Journey of the Magi, detail after Benozzo Gozzoli, The Journey of the Magi, c. 1860, pencil, Harvard University Art Museums (Fogg Art Museum), Cambridge, Massachusetts
Fig. 2, Edgar Degas, Ballet Rehearsal (La salle de danse), circa 1885, oil on canvas, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Gift of Duncan Phillips
Fig. 3, Edward Muybridge, Clinton with Rider, irregular one-half stride from the Animal Locomotion series, 1887, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth
Oil on canvas
New York, Wildenstein & Co., Degas, 1960, no. 39
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, The John Hay Whitney Collection, 1983, no. 13 (as dating from 1883-1890)
Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery; Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, The Private Degas, 1987, no. 90
Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais; Ottawa, Musée des beaux-arts du Canada; New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Degas, 1988-89, no. 304 (titled Jockeys cheminant and as dating from 1890-95)
Roslyn Harbor, Nassau County Museum, Town and Country, 1996
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Degas at the Races, 1998, no. 95 (titled Hacking to the Track)
New York, The Frick Collection, Six Paintings from the Former Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney on Loan from the Greentree Foundation, 2000-02
15 1/4 by 35 1/8 in. 38.7 by 89.4 cm
Etienne Charles, "Les mots de Degas," Renaissance de l'art français et des industries de luxe, Paris, April 1918, illustrated p. 3
Paul-André Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, vol. 3, Paris, 1946, no. 764, illustrated p. 435 (as dating from 1883-90)
Franco Russoli, L'opera completa di Degas, Milan, 1970, no. 710, illustrated p. 118
George Shackelford, Degas: The Dancers, Washington, 1984, fig. 4.9, illustrated p. 104 (titled Landscape with Mounted Horsemen and as dating from circa 1895)
Estate of the artist (sold: 1re Vente, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, May 7-8, 1918, lot 102)
Jacques Seligman (aquired from the above sale and sold: American Art Association, New York, January 27, 1921, lot 41)
Mrs. Helen Payne Whitney (from 1927)
Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney (acquired from the above by inheritance in 1944)