In 1873 popular French writer Ludovic Halévy published a selection of short stories, including Madame Cardinal and Monsieur Cardinal, which recount the tales of a couple with social aspirations. Essays on the Cardinals’ daughters, Pauline and Virginie, followed and in the 1870s Edgar Degas made monotypes inspired by them. For the monotypes, Degas drew and painted directly onto a plate from which an impression was made on paper. He was able to make highly experimental compositions with painterly flourishes.
The Paris Opera House, the setting for many of Degas’ ballet scenes, was a place where assignations could take place. Upper-crust men, called the The Lions, haunted the backstage in search of young dancers. One such predator was Halévy’s Marquis Cavalcanti who pursued Virginie Cardinal.
In this image, set in the Café Anglais, Monsieur Cardinal is shown from behind, engaging in a heated argument with the Marquis. Degas conveys the fury of the occasion with the sweeping lines of the composition. With its flattened space and cropped figures, it is an innovative and accomplished work.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008