Gallery Oldham 18th September, 2021 to 8th January, 2022

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Masterpiece – “A piece of work worthy of a master. One’s greatest achievement”. Looking at the Degas painting that is the centrepiece of this small but fascinating exhibition, I found myself wondering if the word “masterpiece” really applies in its case?  The painting is interesting in some respects, but it doesn’t strike me as showing Degas at his best. And the interest lies more in what the painting contains (i.e. its subject-matter) than in any purely painterly qualities. They, to my mind, have an unfinished aspect I found disconcerting.

Hélène Rouart was the daughter of Henri Rouart, an industrialist, art collector, and Impressionist artist who was a friend of Edgar Degas. The location of the painting is significant in that it places Hélène behind Henri’s empty chair, denoting that, although he’s not physically there, he’s still present in spirit. This view is enforced by the documents on his desk, some Egyptian artefacts in the background, and, to one side of Hélène, paintings by Corot and Millet. Henri’s treasured possessions are a key factor in the painting, and perhaps she can be seen as one of them.

I can understand why the painting has caught the attention of art historians and biographers. It relates to a minor figure in the Impressionist movement who was closely involved with Degas. What’s seen on the canvas provides a basis for documentation and speculation, both factors being relevant to historians and biographers.

We know who the woman is in the Degas painting. But what of other portraits of women? The famous might easily be identified but there are numerous paintings where the women are anonymous. They may have been professional or part-time models, and few records survive of who they were. Gallery Oldham has selected a number of portraits from its permanent collection and used them to accompany the Degas on display. And the staff there have, to their credit, attempted to track down some details about the women in the paintings.

Knowing the names doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the paintings will be accomplished or of real lasting value. Luckily, some have both qualities in evidence. Harold Harvey’s My Kitchen is attractive, and one of the women in it is probably his wife, the artist Gertrude Boddimar. By contrast, Patti Mayor’s bleak but striking Mill Girl with a Shawl doesn’t offer any clues to the identity of the model. She probably was one of those “who toil without a name/and pass into the night”.

Joseph Southall’s colourful Along the Shore catches the eye, and Thomas Mostyn’s romanticised but appealing A Fisherman’s Daughter possibly had a student from a local Devon college for a model. I’ve just taken a sample from the works in the gallery, and most are from early last century, but there are some contemporary paintings on display and, among them, Peter Davis’s Stay Safe, Mum stands out. Painted in 2020, amid concerns about Covid, it’s impressive in the way it catches the character of the person concerned. I certainly preferred looking at it than at the nineteenth century painting, Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses, by J.W. Waterhouse. A different idea of how women were perceived by some male artists – as temptresses and “idols of perversity”, as one writer put it – is well in evidence there.

I enjoyed this exhibition as a whole and not just because it is built around a famous name. The Degas painting is worth seeing, but there are other good things nearby.