Edgar Degas (1834-1917) obsessively reworked his canvases (sometimes even after they were sold, much to the perturbation of his buyers). The thorny question of what Degas considered to be a finished work of art is explored in an article in Facture, a biennial publication on conservation research produced by the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC.

Nineteenth-century artists challenged long-held rules about appropriate subject matter and the aesthetic ideal, swapping slick finishes for thick applications of paint that stand proud on the canvas. Areas of exposed canvas did not signal that a work was unfinished as artists such as Cézanne often left patches of bare canvas showing. “[These artists] exhibited pieces that would have been considered sketches two decades earlier. It would have been like a woman walking around in her slip,” says Kimberly Jones, the NGA’s curator of 19th-century French paintings who co-wrote the article with senior paintings conservator Ann Hoenigswald.

But if you look at Degas’s oeuvre, a significant percentage of pictures appear unfinished. Are these unresolved works or was Degas satisfied with their level of finish? “How do you get into an artist’s mind when they are deliberately opaque?”, asks Jones. “What ultimately defines if a work is finished is how the artist perceives it and the problem with Degas is that he wrote very little about specific works,” she says. The problem is compounded by his lack of consistency in regards to signing, exhibiting and selling pieces—the traditional tell-tale signs that an artist considers a work to be finished.

He was notorious for reworking his canvases, even after they were exhibited. “Degas was a tinkerer. He just couldn’t keep his grubby mitts off his work,” she says. For example, he returned to Scene from the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey (1866) twice after the large-scale work was shown at the Salon of 1866—once in 1880 and then again in around 1897. He also hoarded his pictures instead of selling them, and those he did part with he would sometimes ask for back so they could be reworked. His friend Henri Rouart liked to joke that he chained Dancers Practising at the Barre (1876-77), now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, to the wall to prevent Degas from getting his hands on it (and potentially destroying it as Rouart had witnessed once before with another work). Signatures are also problematic because he signed some works more than once and others not at all, including pictures that have a high level of finish. Read more