Scene From the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey Credit: courtesy National Gallery of Art

Through February 2016, visitors at the Art Institute of Chicago have an opportunity to take in “Degas: At the Track, On the Stage.” By combining two works on loan with pieces from its permanent collection, AIC, says president and curator Douglas Druick, has created “a focused exhibition exploring how Degas used the popular activities of his day to capture the intricacies of the human figure in motion.” 

The centerpiece of the exhibit is the 1866 oil painting Scene From the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey, on loan from the National Gallery of Art. In Degas’s time steeplechase was a newer form of cross-country obstacle horseracing reaching its apex in popularity. Scene depicts a jockey who’s fallen from his horse midrace and the action that surrounds him as the race continues. The work highlights the danger that made the sport the subject of much controversy; it also marks Degas’s transition from depicting historical figures to illustrating modern people in action in modern life.

The stage is represented by a bronze cast of the 1881 wax sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, on loan from a private collection. Degas is perhaps best known for his depictions of dancers in paintings, such as the popular pastel The Star and oil Danseuse Rose (both of which are also on display). It’s remarkable to see these familiar subjects depicted in three dimensions, as though the object of Degas’s affections had come to life. The absence of color also shifts the focus to line and form, and Degas’s attention to detail here is unparalleled.