I was wrong. Quite the opposite is true. There's almost too much to look at comfortably here, and the art on display is of a high caliber, with only a handful of exceptions (the pieces by Ingres and Toulouse-Lautrec, for example, are disappointing).
The works in Degas: The Private Impressionist are all from the collection of Robert Flynn Johnson, Curator Emeritus of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The exhibit was curated by Mr. Johnson and Louise Siddons Ph.D., Assistant Professor and Curator of Collections at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater. Each piece is accompanied by an unusually long explanatory label. Reading these is time consuming, but you'll want to read them. I recommend allowing two-three hours to give the show its due.
The Petaluma Degas show is worth seeing for a number of reasons. First, it's notable for its breadth. It includes more than 100 pieces, about 40 by Degas himself. The latter include very early drawings, some of which are copies made in the Louvre and other museums, often with one sketch overlapping another. Several sheets have drawings on both sides of the paper (mounted here so that front and back are visible)--images Degas made for practice rather than as finished works. Thus, the early part of the show gives us an unusual glimpse of Degas learning to draw.
Third, the show puts Degas clearly into the context of his artistic milieu by including so many works by and of artists that Degas knew and himself collected. Not all of these people will be well known to a general audience, but they include Tissot, Fantin-Latour, Moreau, Gérome, Desboutin, Aryton, and Jeanniot, among others. Better known names include Cassat, Ingres, Cézanne, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Also included are some modern takes on Degas and his work, including a very funny drawing of Degas from 1964 that David Levine made for The New York Review of Books that poses Degas in a tutu standing in the ballet dancer's fourth position, alluding to the artist's sculptures of young dancers.
If I had to nitpick, I was disappointed that no photography is allowed in the galleries, which is frustrating, as it makes it very difficult to later talk about individual works without relying on sometimes-faulty memory, and the catalog is available only as an expensive hardcover edition I didn't feel I could afford. It appears to reproduce all the wall labels verbatim, so it will make an excellent resource, but I had to pass. I noticed that while the drawings and prints are generally well reproduced, the Degas photographs have been given an odd orange tinge not present in the originals on display, which is a shame. Otherwise, I can recommend Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist wholeheartedly--but make sure you allow plenty of time to take in the full sweep of this remarkable collection. General admission is $10 (free for Petaluma Arts Center members). Thursday through Monday (closed Tuesday and Wednesday) 11AM to 5PM. Open on Saturdays until 8PM. (All photographs from the online catalog.)