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FRAME BY FRAME

Simple, original, virtuosic Degas

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / October 11, 2011

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EDGAR DEGAS, “LA SAVOISIENNE”” At: Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, Providence. 401-454-6400, www.risdmuseum.org

Visitors to “Degas and the Nude’’ at the Museum of Fine Arts might be reassured to learn that Degas was interested not just in women’s bodies, but in their faces, too. In fact, he left behind a large number of remarkably fine portraits of women. They range from the severe-looking Laura Bellelli in his early masterpiece, “The Bellelli Family,’’ to Ellen Andrée acting the part of a dejected denizen of a Paris cafe in “The Absinthe Drinker.’’ There are dozens of other portraits of female friends and family that were both sympathetic and penetrating.

This picture, “La Savoisienne,’’ in the collection of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art in Providence, is one of Degas’s earliest depictions of women. It is rarely reproduced in the Degas literature, but it’s one of his freshest and best.

Scholars can’t be sure, but they believe he painted it around 1860, after returning to Paris from three years in Italy. These Italian years were critical for Degas (1834-1917). He spent them studying the art of the Florentine Renaissance, painting family members, moping (for which he had a pronounced talent), and struggling to find a painterly style and worthy subject matter - in short, a reason to recognize in himself the makings of a real artist, not just a devilishly talented imitator.

So, now, look at this girl. Look at the delicacy of the shading around her chin and jaw line; her calm, dark eyes and sunburned nose; the way the subtle finish of the face is set off by the looser rendering of her picturesque outfit and the brushy background. The rendering is simple but virtuosic.

The girl, we infer from the title, is from the mountainous Savoy region, on the border between Italy and France, the two countries to which Degas felt the deepest attachment. Round-faced and tanned, she is seen close-up and magnified.

This gives her face an unprotected, touchingly vulnerable appearance. But (and this intimate-detached dynamic is characteristic of Degas’s later work) she also has a distant, watchful look. She seems both self-possessed and distracted - the way a confident older sister might look as she simultaneously watches over her siblings and fends off suitors.

Pictures of female peasants in exotic costumes were common fare in 19th-century art. In most instances (Corot was an exception), you feel the artists’ interest in their subjects’ inner lives was negligible, or nonexistent. Degas, who never painted another woman in regional costume, contributed something strikingly original to the genre, before moving swiftly on.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

EDGAR DEGAS, “LA SAVOISIENNE”” At: Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, Providence. 401-454-6400, www.risdmuseum.org