The painting illustrates a passage from the Life of Lycurgus by the Roman historian Plutarch, which describes how Spartan girls were ordered to engage in exercise – including running, wrestling and throwing the discus and javelin – and to challenge boys. However, this may be a scene of courtship rather than competition, as aspects of the girls' hairstyles and poses correspond with accounts of such rituals in Plutarch’s writing. In the middle distance a group of women, mothers of the children, surround the elderly Lycurgus, who drew up the rules of Sparta. Beyond them is the city of Sparta, overlooked on the left by Mount Taygetus, from which unwanted Spartan infants were thrown.
Degas abandoned his first attempt at the painting (now in the Art Institute, Chicago) and made substantial changes to this second version as he tried to modernise it, replacing the classical features of the adolescents with more contemporary faces. The picture had great significance for him, and he kept it in his studio all his life.
In April 1859 Edgar Degas returned to Paris, having spent the previous three years in Italy studying and copying old masters. Still in his twenties, he now sought to establish himself as a successful painter. At the time, history painting was the most highly regarded genre of art, particularly if a picture was well-received at the annual Salon in Paris. During the first half of the 1860s Degas produced five large-scale history paintings, of which this is one. However, it was never shown at the Salon and remained in his studio for the rest of his life.
Degas carried out further revisions on this painting around 1879–80 and may even have continued working on it further (it was never varnished). Writing in 1924, his friend Daniel Halévy recalled: ‘Later in his life, Degas was very attached to this work; he drew it forth from the secret reserves in which he concealed his lifetime’s labours and placed it clearly in view on an easel in front of which he would often stop – a notable honour and a sign of predilection.’ The caricaturist Jean-Louis Forain similarly recalled: ‘the fondness that [Degas] had, in his later years, for the old picture that he [had] placed on an easel.’
Clearly, the painting had great significance for Degas, not least perhaps as a reminder both to himself and to studio visitors that he was more than just a ‘painter of dancers’. For Degas, the painting was a statement – even a manifesto – that spoke of his early commitment to history painting. His decision to become a history painter was inspired in part by Ingres, who on meeting Degas in 1855 advised him to ‘draw lines young man, many lines, from memory or from nature’. However, Degas also looked to the great Romantic artist, Delacroix. Degas’s history paintings, and much of his subsequent work, built upon the influence of both Ingres and Delacroix, as he combined the careful preparation, anatomical accuracy and precise draughtsmanship of the former with the dynamism and colour of the latter.
For Young Spartans Exercising Degas chose a well-known anecdote about Spartan education, but one seldom taken up by artists. In his Life of Lycurgus, the Roman historian Plutarch described how the Spartan legislator ordered girls to engage in exercise – including running, wrestling and throwing the discus and javelin – and to ‘good-naturedly’ challenge boys. Paraphrasing Plutarch, Degas wrote in one of his notebooks: ‘young girls and boys wrestling in the plane-tree grove, under the eye of the aged Lycurgus, beside the mothers.’ Degas did not rely exclusively on Plutarch for his image of Sparta and read widely on the topic, including Abbé Barthélémy’s Travels of Anacharsis the Younger in Ancient Greece (1787), which further embellished Plutarch’s account. Degas was also familiar with accounts of current archaeological research into ancient Greece, particularly Ernest Béule’s Studies on the Peloponnese (1855), which praised the values of Spartan society, particularly its celebration of youthful strength and beauty.
The painting shows the open plains of Sparta with no sign of the plane-tree grove noted by Degas. In the middle distance a group of women, the mothers of the children, surround the elderly Lycurgus, who drew up the laws of Sparta. Beyond them in the distance is the city of Sparta, which is overlooked on the left by Mount Taygetus, from which unwanted Spartan infants were thrown. The foreground is dominated by two opposing groups. Four girls appear to be taunting five nude boys, although it has been suggested that this is a scene of courtship rather than competition, as aspects of the girls’ hairstyles and poses correspond with accounts of such rituals in Plutarch’s writing. The lunging gesture of one of the young women might be one of enticement, not aggression. However, the picture’s significance perhaps lies less in its literary sources than in the tension between Degas’s classicism and his modernity, in particular his realisation that he could not present an image of an idealised classical past forever frozen in time.
Degas also realised the subject would provide him with an opportunity to display his skill in depicting the nude. However, he had difficulties with the overall composition in his first full-scale attempt at the painting (now in The Art Institute, Chicago) and abandoned it. Although less finished, that grisaille picture includes a more detailed landscape and a classical building in the middle distance, which was removed in the second version. Both versions include the two frieze-like groups in the foreground, for which Degas made numerous preparatory drawings. In the sketches and the painting, we can see his lifelong fascination with bodies caught mid-motion or in gesture. The array of legs belonging to the four girls – ten instead of the expected eight – anticipate Degas’s later ballet studies and even Futurism’s proto-cinematic depiction of movement; the boys’ varied poses are not far removed from the young ballerinas and jockeys who would soon preoccupy the artist. When he attempted to ‘update’ the picture, Degas replaced the classical features of the adolescents with more contemporary faces.
In his depiction of the girls and boys, Degas has subtly reversed gender conventions, perhaps to emphasise the equal status of the young Spartan women. While their taut bodies form a tight group, and one points aggressively (or perhaps beckons) towards the boys, the youths themselves are more relaxed as they stretch and lounge. One even crouches on all fours, adopting a pose Degas would later use in his pictures of women who worked as prostitutes. This pose, which hints at an animality that was also an aspect of Degas’s art, perhaps registers the artist’s awareness of contemporary theories of evolution and degeneration. Sleek classical athleticism has been replaced by a much more ambiguous depiction of these young bodies.
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