Susan Goldman Rubin is the author of the new children's book Degas: Painter of Ballerinas. Her many other books include Coco Chanel and Maya Lin. She lives in Malibu, California.
Q: Why did you decide to focus on Edgar Degas and his paintings and sculptures featuring dancers?
A: I wrote a book in 2002 on Degas's dancers and when there was an opportunity to revisit this work with art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art I jumped at the chance.
It seemed natural to focus on Degas when he was focusing on ballet dancers. He had many subjects—he wanted to capture motion. It was the same with his paintings of horse races.
When I did the book in 2002, I was able to go behind the scenes at the American School of Ballet. There was a teacher from Russia using a stick to thump the beat, and that gave me the rhythm of the book.
Degas mastered exquisite line drawing. I marvel at how few lines capture a leg, a skirt, a profile. He had to move into pastels and use heavier black lines [as he lost his sight].
Toward the end of his life, he went into sculpture. This book gave me the chance to see his sculptures including "The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer." I had seen these sculptures at the Met when I visited New York and could also view them online. This gave me the complete arc.
We included a glossary of art terms and ballet terms in the back matter of Degas, Painter of Ballerinas. The book includes a self-portrait and photograph he did —a selfie! Degas became very interested in photography. He would pose people and arrange the lighting.
Also, I was able to show an Impressionist painting. I wanted to show the difference between Degas’ work indoors, and the Impressionists outside. I love the one I chose, of a famous place on the Seine. So many of them painted this resort place.
Q: Do you have a favorite among the works you include in the book?
A: I love the drawings that are included in the Met collection. He used tinted papers and would use white chalk to bring out the white. I’m in awe of his work as a drawer. Not all painters know how to draw. I could look at these over and over.
Q: Did you need to do a lot of additional research for this book?
A: I had to do a lot of research. With any great topic in art or history, there’s so much you want to know and learn and bring out.
I dedicated this book to my daughter-in-law—she’s studying ballet. I went on YouTube. There are videos of teachers describing classic steps, but it’s hard to put into words. My daughter-in-law helped me.
I had a chance to better understand the work, and I had never studied the sculptures before. "The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer" was the only sculpture he ever showed in his lifetime.
Q: Why was that?
A: He felt daring and wanted to show it. He was doing something new and avant-garde, adding real material [to the sculpture]. People hated it! Something brand-new can be shocking. It led the way to much of the art we see today. He was ahead of his time.
Q: What do you see as Degas’ legacy today?
A: Practice, practice, practice. He never married—he said, I was in love with art. His determination to get it right—he would go to the Louvre and really study the art. That’s how you master any profession. You have to practice. You have to make mistakes. He made this his life’s goal.
His father wanted him to be a lawyer. It’s a recurring theme in my books—the parent wants you to do one thing, and the young person with a passion [follows that passion]. Finally his dad gave his approval. I think it’s a very important message. Not that I’m putting down the importance of working for a living, but that doesn’t mean giving up art.
When people would ask Degas for advice, he’d say, A touch of color, a pencil, a few minimum materials to learn how to draw and to observe. He said, Drawing is not what one sees but what I can make others see. In other words, capturing what is vital to you so others can see it.
He didn’t take an easel [on location] and sit and paint. He did his work back in his studio, to compose it. I wanted to show how he worked, the process he used. The captions in the book help a lot.
It was wonderful working with the Met. The details that designers Julia Marvel and Shawn Dahl added were exquisite.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on three books due out in 2020. Sometimes because of production schedules, it just works out that way.
One is a picture book about Mary Seacole, an adventurous 19th century Jamaican nurse. She was rejected by Florence Nightingale, so she made her own way to the Crimean war front to take care of British soldiers.
One is a biography of Paul Robeson, an amazing African American athlete, scholar, singer, actor, and activist. "Ol' Man River" was written for him by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. Robeson was the first black actor to star in Othello on Broadway. He was an activist in the later years of his life. This project involved art and issues of civil rights and social justice.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Susan Goldman Rubin.