Homecoming for a Degas Drawing

By Anne Driesse
July 22, 2020
In this drawing on light brown paper, a slender man sits atop a horse, his back turned to the viewer. The horse is indicated by only a few black strokes that define its torso and saddle. The man holds the reins and firmly plants a foot in a stirrup. A few highlights of white dot his shirt and pants, and his sleeves are colored bluish black. His grey face is seen in profile, as he looks to the right. He wears a visor cap that shades his eyes. In the lower left side, the artist’s signature, “Degas,” appears in a red stamp.
2015.3 Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, French, Mounted Jockey, c. 1866. Essence on brown wove paper. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Meta and Paul J. Sachs, 2015.3.

Degas’s drawing Mounted Jockey appeared in a 1940 catalogue Drawings in the Fogg Museum of Art—though it wasn’t yet part of the collections. It had been promised to the museum by collector and Fogg associate director Paul Sachs. But before Sachs could give it to Harvard, the drawing was stolen while on exhibition elsewhere in the United States. In 2015, the work reappeared as part of an estate and was promptly delivered to the Harvard Art Museums. In the years it was lost, the drawing had suffered.

This spirited sketch from the late 1860s was drawn in essence with a brush. Essence is a technique in which paint is drained of oil and mixed with turpentine to give it a matte gouache-like consistency.[1] Degas used the brown color of the paper as a middle tone, describing the figure with rapid, energetic black lines, and then adding highlights in white to bolster the contrasts and heighten the effect of this figural study. The motif depicted here is connected to one of the artist’s favorite subjects of modern life: the horse race. A luxury sport imported from England, horse racing was in vogue in 19th-century Paris. Degas loved it almost as much as the ballet, and he dedicated many paintings and drawings to the sport.

The time away from the museums had taken its toll on Degas’s sketch. When we examined it in 2015, we found it had been adhered to a mat with paper remnants along the verso edges. The thin wove tan paper had darkened with a noticeable mat burn (a dark brown line around the perimeter of the drawing due to contact with a former acidic mat). Stains, possibly oil-based, were scattered around the surface. Of utmost concern was the missing upper left corner, which quite literally ruined the work’s visual appeal.

This drawing of the jockey shows an outer edge of lighter-colored paper, partially absent at the top and bottom and left side. The top left corner of the work is missing.
The drawing before treatment shows the extraneous paper along the edges and the loss at the upper left corner.

In consultation with Edouard Kopp, then Maida and George Abrams Associate Curator of Drawings, we decided not to treat the oil stains, which could have originated in the artist’s studio and therefore should be preserved. In addition, I wasn’t totally confident that they could be significantly reduced to improve the general appearance of the paper. Instead the treatment would focus on the removal of the edge papers and the filling of the loss at the upper left corner.

To prepare this intervention, I removed the additional paper tapes from the verso with controlled moisture. There were two approaches to consider to fill in the loss: to use an existing paper similar in tone and thickness and toned to match, or to use specifically generated paper pulp. Since Degas’s paper was an unusual color, I decided to use pulp and to create, or cast, my own paper to replace the corner. In this process, colored papers are washed (to reduce and remove any degradation products), torn into small pieces, and beaten in a household blender to reduce the paper to pulp. I was able to vary the proportions of my different pulp slurries to end up with a paper patch that closely matched the required color. In addition, the texture and softness of the newly formed paper was quite similar to the drawing support. It turned out to be the ideal material to replace the loss.

  • A blender with a cream-colored base, needles, a bone folder, pipettes, a brayer, two small glass cups, and a yellow scrub brush all sit on a gray surface. The two small glass cups are filled with a whitish liquid. The blender contains a small amount of white liquid, as well.
    of The various tools used to make the pulp fill included a blender, needles, bone folder, pipettes, a brayer (roller), and a scrub brush. Photo: Anne Driesse.
  • A woman stands over a table, holding a small brush over a patch of brown pulp that sits on a rectangular plate of glass. She wears a light blue, long-sleeved shirt and a dark blue vest. She has brown hair and wears glasses. Jars filled with various materials and other small patches of pulp are also on the table.
    of Anne Driesse forms a pulp patch using a scrub brush on a light box. Pulp in jars and other formed pulp patches are visible on the light box. Photo: Penley Knipe.
  • A partially seen hand holds a brayer over a patch of brown pulp that sits on a rectangular plate of glass. Several other small pulp patches in varying shades of brown are nearby on the glass.
    of Driesse uses a brayer to flatten the pulp patch. Photo: Penley Knipe.

Once I had a significant number of brown-colored pulp patches, I sought the best-toned patch for the drawing.

On a table is a partial view of Degas’s drawing to the right, positioned horizontally; several toned pulp patches are to the left of the top edge of the drawing. To the left of the patches is a white piece of paper and a few smudges of pastels, in varying hues of brown. A large, flat box of pastels is in the background.
A range of pulp patches are placed next to the drawing to determine the best match. Pastels are used to further tone the patch. Photo: Anne Driesse.

I placed the best matching patch under the missing corner and carefully pricked the outline of the edge into my patch. Using a thin needle and a sharp scalpel, I teased out the pulp to conform my edge to the remaining edge of the drawing.

I toned the patch with Winsor & Newton watercolors and attached it to the drawing with wheat starch paste and methyl cellulose. In addition, I adhered two layers of toned Japanese paper to the verso with wheat starch paste to give the corner additional support.

To achieve the final color compensation, I applied Sennelier pastels and Pan Pastels with a soft sponge.

A brown pulp patch is placed over the upper left corner of the drawing, which can be only partially seen. The brown of the patch matches that of the drawing’s background. A tool with a blue handle and a soft pink sponge at its end is shown held over the patch. The tip of the sponge is a brown color that matches what is in the patch and the drawing.
The final color compensation was achieved by applying pastels with a soft sponge. Photo: Anne Driesse.

With the fill attached and toned as best as possible, I trimmed the edges of my patch. The drawing is now complete and ready once again for study and display.

There are two images of the Degas drawing; the one at left shows the drawing with a small part of the upper left corner missing and a light-colored paper around the edges with some of it missing; the image at right shows the drawing with its upper left corner filled in and restored.

Anne Driesse is senior paper conservator in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Harvard Art Museums.


[1] Shelley Fletcher and Pia Desantis, “Degas: The Search for His Technique Continues,” The Burlington Magazine 131 (1033) (1989): 256–65.