The National Gallery Masterpiece Tour: Degas

In September 2021 Gallery Oldham will welcome Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas’s work Hélène Rouart in her Father’s Study, from the National Gallery. Amy Harris volunteered with us last year, researching some of the paintings which we will include in the exhibition. Here are her thoughts on Hélène and some of her contemporaries …

Reflections of their fathers

We’re using this painting as a springboard for conversation. That conversation asks: Is this really a portrait of Hélène or her father? How are women represented in our collections? And, who are the women in these paintings?

While the title may indicate that Degas is depicting the daughter of his friend, Henri Rouart, Hélène is engulfed in her father’s office, hidden by his chair, surrounded by his possessions, in a room that tells us more about Henri than Hélène. It appears that in Hélène’s case, in this painting, she is nothing more than a reflection of her father.

Painting of Hélène Rouart dressed in grey in her father's study stood leaning against his desk chair.
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Hélène Rouart in her Father’s Study. © The National Gallery, London.

Degas is famous for his art depicting ballerinas in motion, bringing women to life and he appears to have no recognisable trend of creating disproportionate furniture within his paintings. Yet, his enormous chair shrinks Hélène’s presence behind Henri’s.

The contrast between his usual works and this painting shows that Degas chose to hide Rouart’s daughter behind the huge chair, making it clear that Henri’s larger than life presence, physical or otherwise, overshadows hers. Even the colours Degas chose to paint Hélène with match the décor of the room. Hélène as a result quite literally fades into the background.

Hélène is placed among his possessions. The sarcophagus in the background tells us of Henri’s love of collecting worldly treasures, the paintings in the background depict his affinity for art and the papers on the desk imply he is a busy man. To Degas, Hélène was just another one of Henri’s possession and notable successes. Just like the presence of the sarcophagus in the painting Hélène is simply on display to increase Henri’s reputation, rather than to outshine him.

Hélène is not alone. Many of the paintings in our collections depicting women tell us more about their fathers than the women themselves. Often, when the painting is of someone’s daughter the girl is placed in an environment comfortable to their father and named by her father’s occupation. Evidently, to the painters, the occupation of the father reveals more about the woman than her own name.

Painting of a teenage girl wearing a pink bonnet and lilac dress with a seascape in the background.

One such painting is ‘The Fisherman’s Daughter’ by Thomas Edward Mostyn.

Mostyn was raised in Manchester and educated at the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts. Many of Mostyn’s paintings represent the Victorian working class but do so realistically, focusing on the spirit of people and nature rather than emphasising aesthetics and possession. The Fisherman’s Daughter is a clear example of this.

 As a fisherman’s daughter the young woman in this painting is clearly from a working-class background. Yet, instead of representing her as destitute, surrounding her by industrialist greys and giving her a forlorn expression, Mostyn paints the woman surrounded by nature, dressed in bright colours, and appearing happily content with her life.

Just as Hélène is painted in her Father’s office the fisherman’s daughter is painted in her father’s domain, with the sea behind her. All we really learn about the young woman is her status as a fisherman’s daughter, there is no sign of the girls own personality beyond her wistful smile. By naming the painting ‘The Fisherman’s Daughter’ all we can be expected to take away is that her father is successful because of his ability to make his daughter happy. By refusing to name the young woman he is commodifying her. By calling her ‘The Fisherman’s Daughter’ he deems her a possession of her fathers. Mostyn, just like Degas, shows the girl to be nothing more than an object that reflects the success of the father.

Painting of a young girl wearing a blue woollen top with buttons. Behind the red tunic of a soldier.

Nameless daughters reflective of their fathers is a trend within our collections. Allan Gwynne Jones’ ‘A Soldier’s Daughter’ carries out the same pattern as Mostyn’s work.

The painting depicts a young girl with an expression of quiet worry. At first glance the background appears to be a block of red but the young girl is about to be wrapped in a red cloak, otherwise known as a scarlet tunic.

Scarlet tunics were part of the uniform worn by the Welsh Guard, a regiment that Gwynne Jones’ had been drafted into in 1914. By the time this of this works creation in 1930, Gwynne Jones was no longer a soldier, however worry was brewing about international politics. With the rise of Mussolini in Italy and political tensions in Germany, life as a soldier must have been a constant state of worry.

With this in mind, Gwynne-Jones may have been attempting to humanise the soldier through his daughter. The girl’s forlorn but defiant expression reflects the attitude of a soldier. Sadness that another war is likely to be fought soon, but still resilient. The uniform jacket behind her showing that the children of the soldiers are just as affected by conflict as the men. The cloak offers protection for now, but what happens if soldiers are sent away again? Who will protect the daughter?

All three paintings seem to have good intentions. Degas wanted to introduce his friend’s daughter to the world. Mostyn was attempting to highlight the good in working class life in Victorian England, and Gwynne-Jones was trying to humanise soldiers who would likely soon be sent to war. These good intentions however were sullied by the male artists’ inability to see the daughters they painted as individuals beyond the careers of their fathers.

It seems that the daughters are simply used as reflections of the father’s successes. Hélène is just another object to show off. The fisherman’s success depicted through his daughter’s peace and happiness. The soldier’s daughter’s happiness dependent on the protection her father’s position provides her.

At Gallery Oldham we want to know who are these women in the paintings? If you want to find out more about them make sure you visit our exhibition The National Gallery Masterpiece Tour: Degas.