Paperwork and fragmentation in Degas's "Bureau Pictures"

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This article identifies a group of paintings by Edgar Degas as “bureau pictures,” representations of workplaces, creative or commercial, in which piles of paper are spread on desks. Through his depiction of paper, as well as his affective casting of the way in which human figures relate to their piles of paper, Degas explores the intertwined gestures of creative and bureaucratic labor. Paper’s tendency to offer a medium for fragmentation was represented in contemporary literature by Théophile Gautier and Émile Zola. In these texts and in Degas’s images, papery fragmentation takes two forms: either as a creative scattering symptomatic of an anti-classical aesthetic informed by Romanticism, or as an instrument of bureaucracy and administration, as in Zola’s representation of the stock market and the department store. Ultimately, in the bureau pictures, Degas does not take a definitive stance, but rather dwells on the way in which the two approaches intermingle, such that it is impossible to distinguish clearly between an artist’s or an author’s work and that of a clerk, at least at the level of the gestures and the handling of pieces of paper. In a move typical of Modernist aesthetics, however, paint and compositional choices strike back in order to submerge paper in the user’s coin (corner), as a “true fragment” impressed with the mark of artistic temperament.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)74-87
JournalWord & Image
VolumeIn press
Early online date25 May 2021
Publication statusPublished - 2021


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