Edgar Degas (19 July 1834 27 September 1917), born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar
Degas (IPA /il?? ???m?? ?d??? d???/), was a French artist famous for his
work in painting, sculpture, and drawing. His early study of classical
art prefaced a body of mature works depicting the human figure in contemporary
environments. He is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism although
he objected to the term.
Degas was born in Paris, France, the eldest of five children of Celestine
Musson De Gas and Augustin De Gas, a banker. The family was moderately
wealthy. At age eleven, Degas (as a young man he abandoned the more pretentious
spelling of the family name) began his schooling with enrollment in the
Lycée Louis-le-Grand, graduating in 1853 with a baccalauréat
Degas began to paint seriously early in life. By eighteen he had turned
a room in his home into an artist's studio, and had begun making copies
in the Louvre, but his father expected him to go to law school. Degas
duly registered at the Faculty of Law of the University of Paris in November
1853, but made little effort at his studies there. In 1855 Degas met Jean
Auguste Dominique Ingres and was advised by him to "draw lines, young
man, many lines." In April of that same year, Degas received admission
to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he studied drawing with Louis Lamothe,
under whose guidance he flourished, following the style of Ingres. The
next year, Degas traveled to Italy, where he saw the paintings of Michelangelo,
Raphael, and other artists of the Renaissance.
After returning from Italy, Degas continued his education by copying
paintings at the Louvre; he was to remain an enthusiastic copyist well
into middle age. In 1865 some of his works were accepted in the Salon.
During the next five years, Degas had additional works accepted in the
Salon, and gradually gained respect in the world of conventional art.
In 1870, at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, Degas enlisted in
the National Guard, where his defense of Paris left him little time for
painting. During rifle training his eyesight was found to be defective,
and for the rest of his life his eye problems were a constant worry to
Following the war, Degas visited his brother, René, in New Orleans
and produced a number of works, many of family members, before returning
to Paris in 1873. The following year, Degas helped to organize the first
of the exhibitions that became labeled, Impressionist Exhibitions. The
Impressionists subsequently held seven additional shows, the last in 1886,
and Degas showed his work in all but one. At around the same time, Degas
also began a hobby as a photographer, using it both for pleasure, and,
in order to accurately capture action for his paintings and artwork.
At the death of his father in 1874, the subsequent settling of the estate
revealed that René had amassed enormous business debts. To preserve
the family name, Degas was forced to sell his house and a collection of
art he had inherited. He now found himself suddenly dependent on sales
of his artwork for income.
After several years his financial situation improved and sales of his
own work permitted him to indulge his passion for collecting works by
artists he admiredold masters such as El Greco, moderns such as
Delacroix, and his contemporaries Cézanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh.
Ingres and Manet were especially well represented in his collection.
As the years passed, Degas became isolated, due in part, to his belief
"that a painter could have no personal life." The Dreyfus Affair
controversy brought his antisemitic leanings to the fore and he broke
with all his Jewish friends.
While he is known to have been working in pastel as late as the end of
1907, and is believed to have continued making sculpture as late as 1910,
he apparently ceased working in 1912, when the impending demolition of
his longtime residence on the rue Victor Massé forced a wrenching
move to quarters on the boulevard de Clichy. He never married and spent
the last years of his life, nearly blind, "aimlessly wandering the
streets of Paris" before dying in 1917.
Degas is often identified as an Impressionist, an understandable, but
insufficient description; in fact, he disapproved of their enterprise.
Technically Degas differed from the Impressionists in that he "never
adopted the Impressionist color fleck" Degas is, however, described
more accurately as an Impressionist than as a member of any other movement.
Impressionism originated in the 1860s and 1870s and grew, in part, from
the realism of such painters as Courbet and Corot. The Impressionists
painted the realities of the world around them using bright, "dazzling"
colors, concentrating primarily on the effects of light.
Degas had his own distinct style, one reflecting his deep respect for
the old masters and his great admiration for Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres
and Eugène Delacroix. He was also a collector of Japanese prints,
whose compositional principles influenced his work, as did the vigorous
realism of popular illustrators such as Daumier and Gavarni. Although
famous for horses and dancers, Degas began with conventional historical
paintings such as The Young Spartans, although his treatment of such subjects
became progressively less idealized. During his early career, Degas also
painted portraits of individuals and groups; an example of the latter
is The Bellelli Family of (1859), a brilliantly composed and psychologically
poignant portrayal of his aunt, her husband, and their children. In this
painting, as in The Young Spartans and many later works, Degas was drawn
to the tensions present between men and women. In his early paintings,
Degas already evidenced the mature style that he would later develop more
fully by cropping subjects awkwardly and by choosing unusual viewpoints.
Absinthe, 1876, oil on canvas, by Edgar Degas
Absinthe, 1876, oil on canvas, by Edgar Degas
By the late 1860s, Degas had shifted from his intitial forays into history
painting to an original observation of contemporary life. Racecourse scenes
provided an opportunity to depict horses and their riders in a modern
context. He began to paint women at work, milliners and laundresses. Mlle.
Fiocre in the Ballet La Source, exhibited in the Salon of 1868, was his
first major work to introduce a subject with which he would become especially
In many subsequent paintings dancers were shown backstage or in rehearsal,
emphasizing their status as professionals doing a job. Degas began to
paint café life as well. He urged other artists to paint "real
life" instead of traditional mythological or historical paintings.
His rare literary scenes were modern and of highly ambiguous content;
for example, Interior, which was probably based on a scene from Thérèse
As his subject matter changed, so, too, did Degas' technique. The dark
palette which bore the influence of Dutch painting gave way to the use
of vivid colors and bold brushstrokes. Paintings such as Place de la Concorde
read as "snapshots," freezing moments of time to portray them
accurately, imparting a sense of movement.
Blurring the distinction between portraiture and genre pieces, he painted
his bassoonist friend, Désiré Dihau, in The Orchestra of
the Opera (1868-69) as one of fourteen musicians in an orchestra pit,
viewed as though by a member of the audience. Above the musicians can
be seen only the legs and tutus of the dancers onstage, their figures
cropped by the edge of the painting. Art historian Charles Stuckey has
pointed out that the viewpoint is that of a distracted spectator at a
ballet, and that "it is Degas' fascination with the depiction of
movement, including the movement of a spectator's eyes as during a random
glance, that is properly speaking 'Impressionist'."
Degas' mature style is distinguished by conspicuously unfinished passages,
even in otherwise tightly rendered paintings. He frequently blamed his
eye troubles for his "inability to finish", an explanation that
met with some skepticism from colleagues and collectors who reasoned that
his pictures "could hardly have been executed by anyone with inadequate
vision." The artist provided another clue when he described his predilection
"to begin a hundred things and not finish one of them," and
was in any case notoriously reluctant to consider a painting complete.
His interest in portraiture led him to study carefully the ways in which
a person's social stature or form of employment may be revealed by their
physiognomy, posture, dress, and other attributes. In his 1879 Portraits,
At the Stock Exchange, he portrayed a group of Jewish businessmen with
a hint of the misanthropy which would increase with age.
By the later 1870s Degas had mastered not only the traditional medium
of oil on canvas, but pastel as well. The dry medium, which he applied
in complex layers and textures, enabled him to reconcile his facility
for line more easily with a growing interest in expressive color.
In the mid-1870s he also returned to the medium of etching, which he
had neglected for ten years, and began experimenting with less traditional
printmaking medialithographs and experimental monotypes. He was
especially fascinated by the effects produced by monotype, and frequently
reworked the printed images with pastel.
These changes in media engendered the paintings that Degas would produce
in later life. Degas began to draw and paint women drying themselves with
towels, combing their hair, and bathing (see: After the Bath). The strokes
that model the form are scribbled more freely than before; backgrounds
The meticulous naturalism of his youth gave way to an increasing abstraction
of form. Except for his characteristically brilliant draftsmanship and
obsession with the figure, the pictures created in this late period of
his life, bear little superficial resemblance to his early paintings.
Ironically, it is these paintings, created late in Degas's life, and after
the end of the Impressionist movement, that use the coloristic techniques
For all the stylistic evolution, certain features of Degas's work remained
the same throughout his life. He always painted indoors, preferring to
work in his studio, either from memory or using models. The figure remained
his primary subject; his few landscapes were produced from memory or imagination.
It was not unusual for him to repeat a subject many times, varying the
composition or treatment. He was a deliberative artist whose works "were
prepared, calculated, practiced, developed in stages. They were made up
of parts. The adjustment of each part to the whole, their linear arrangement,
was the occasion for infinite reflection and experiment."
During his life, public reception of Degas' work ranged from admiration
to contempt. As a promising artist in the conventional mode, and in the
several years following 1860, Degas had a number of paintings accepted
in the Salon. These works received praise from Pierre Puvis de Chavannes
and the critic, Castagnary.
Degas soon joined forces with the Impressionists, however, and rejected
the Salonjust as the Salon and general public rejected the Impressionists.
Degas made no important contributions to the style of the Impressionists;
instead, his contributions to the movement involved the organization of
His work was controversial, but was generally admired for its draftsmanship.
The suite of nudes Degas exhibited in the eighth Impressionist Exhibition
in 1886 produced "the most concentrated body of critical writing
on the artist during his lifetime. The overall reaction was positive and
Recognized as an important artist by the end of his life, Degas is now
considered "one of the founders of impressionism".
His paintings, pastels, drawings, and sculpturemost of the latter
were not intended for exhibition, and were discovered only after his deathare
on prominent display in many museums.
Although Degas had no formal pupils, he greatly influenced several important
painters, most notably Jean-Louis Forain, Mary Cassatt, and Walter Sickert;
his greatest admirer may have been Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Edgar Degas. (2007, January 30). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Retrieved 01:08, February 2, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Edgar_Degas&oldid=104247052
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