for Stephen Bann
A large canvas, nearly square, in fact vertical in format. In the upper third, a slender dark-brown horse with a plaited mane running headlong, also slightly downward, from right to left with front and rear legs counterfactually extended so as to arrest it forever in mid-stride. Carrying an empty racing saddle, reins hanging loose, the one visible stirrup swinging backward, indicating speed. And beneath the horse, floating on his back upon or just above soft green billows (a hillside: the race is a steeplechase, though no obstacle is shown), a fallen jockey in a white silk shirt buttoned to the neck, yellow riding tights, and black stub-heeled boots rising to below his knees. At the top of the canvas a glimpse of sky and clouds (low-hanging, moiling) and in the sunlit distance, barely more than touches of pigment, a line of horses racing as if in another world.
The picture is unfinished. Nothing in it feels resolved, and especially toward the bottom the scumbled strokes of green grow sparse and the buff underpainting shows through. Degas scholars are confident that he worked on it in the 1890s, but beyond that they know only that it amounts to a variation on a more elaborate failed painting of thirty years earlier, which itself was a response to his friend and rival Edouard Manet's Incident in a Bullring, with its fallen torero who may or may not be merely pretending to be dead (no visible wound and only a small trickle of blood on the ground). But Degas's rider appears genuinely stricken: there is something horrific-I don't think I exaggerate -about his doll-like posture, halfway elevated arms, and head with its closed eyes, uncertain color, and air of deathlike rigidity. In May and again in August 2005 I stood for hours in Basel Kunstmuseum giving myself over to Degas's tragic masterpiece (for that is what I believe it to be). In the end I arrived at the following conviction:
The jockey is Manet. Who had died in his early fifties as a result of complications from syphilis more than ten years before. Leaving Degas bereft of a dauntless companion in arms whose pictorial genius he unstintingly admired and whose absolute social confidence he could never hope to emulate ("cet animal," he once called him). Not that Degas had the least suspicion that this was the meaning of his picture-and indeed the jockey with his unappealing mug and too-vigorous thatch and beard doesn't resemble Manet, whose features expressed the most refined intelligence and whose hair, receding above his forehead, and elegant short beard were reddish-blond, not black. But that Degas's protagonist wears a beard at all has always inspired comment, and then there are two other observations that are perhaps decisive in view of the dreamlike atmosphere of the composition as a whole. First, Manet died in convulsions ten days after having had his gangrenous left leg amputated: the jockey's awkwardly bent, one assumes broken left leg recalls that terrible fact. And second, the jockey's right hand-Manet's painting hand-is almost wholly absent. (So how could the jockey represent the great painter? Impossible, Degas's unconscious must have thought.) But on a line from the jockey's right arm, mostly superimposed against the horse's body, is his not yet fallen riding crop, which I see-how could I not?-as a substitute for the fallen painter's brush. And the headlong riderless horse with its innocent head turned slightly toward the viewer and its large dark eye full of unspecified emotion? Several possibilities suggest themselves: modern painting, Manet's immortality, blind chance, life itself...
Michael Fried, a professor of humanities at Johns Hopkins University, writes art criticism as well as poetry.