Edgar Degas (19 July 1834 - 27 September 1917), born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas (French pronunciation), was a French artist famous for his work in painting, sculpture, printmaking and drawing. He is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism although he rejected the term, and preferred to be called a realist. A superb draughtsman, he is especially identified with the subject of the dance, and over half his works depict dancers. These display his mastery in the depiction of movement, as do his racecourse subjects and female nudes. His portraits are notable for their psychological complexity and depiction of human isolation.
Early in his career, his ambition was to be a history painter, a calling for which he was well prepared by his rigorous academic training and close study of classic art. In his early thirties, he changed course, and by bringing the traditional methods of a history painter to bear on contemporary subject matter, he became a classical painter of modern life.
Degas was born in Paris, France, the eldest of five children of Célestine Musson De Gas and Augustin De Gas, a banker. The family was moderately wealthy. His mother died when Degas was thirteen, after which his father and grandfather were the main influences on his early life. At age eleven, Degas (in adulthood 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 in literature.
Degas began to paint early in his life. By eighteen, he had turned a room in his home into an artist's studio, and in 1853 he registered as a copyist in the Louvre. His father, however, 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, whom he revered, and whose advice he never forgot: "Draw lines, young man, and still more lines, both from life and from memory, and you will become a good artist." 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. In July 1856, Degas traveled to Italy, where he would remain for the next three years. In 1858, while staying with his aunt's family in Naples, he made the first studies for his early masterpiece, The Bellelli Family. He also drew and painted copies after Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and other artists of the Renaissance, often selecting from an altarpiece an individual head which he treated as a portrait. By 1860 Degas had made more than seven hundred copies of works including Italian Renaissance and French Classical art.
Upon his return to France in 1859, Degas moved into a Paris studio large enough to permit him to begin painting The Bellelli Family an imposing canvas he intended for exhibition in the Salon, although it remained unfinished until 1867. He also began work on several history paintings: Alexander and Bucephalus and The Daughter of Jephthah in 1859–60; Sémiramis Building Babylon in 1860; and Young Spartans around 1860. In 1861, Degas visited his childhood friend Paul Valpinçon in Normandy, and made the earliest of his many studies of horses. He exhibited at the Salon for the first time in 1865, when the jury accepted his painting Scene of War in the Middle Ages, which attracted little attention. Although he exhibited annually in the Salon during the next five years, he submitted no more history paintings, and his Steeplechase. The Fallen Jockey (Salon of 1866) signaled his growing commitment to contemporary subject matter. The change in his art was influenced primarily by the example of Édouard Manet, whom Degas had met in 1864 (while both were copying the same Velázquez portrait in the Louvre, according to a story that may be apocryphal).
At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, 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 him.
The New Orleans Cotton Exchange, 1873After the war, in 1872, Degas began an extended stay in New Orleans, Louisiana, where his brother René and a number of other relatives lived. Staying in a house on Esplanade Avenue, Degas produced a number of works, many depicting family members. One of Degas' New Orleans works, depicting a scene at The Cotton Exchange at New Orleans, garnered favorable attention back in France, and was his only work purchased by a museum (that of Pau) during his lifetime.
Degas returned to Paris in 1873. The following year his father died, and in the subsequent settling of the estate it was discovered that Degas' brother 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. Dependent for the first time in his life on sales of his artwork for income, he produced much of his greatest work during the decade beginning in 1874. By now thoroughly disenchanted with the Salon, Degas joined forces with a group of young artists who were intent upon organizing an independent exhibiting society. The first of their exhibitions, which were quickly dubbed Impressionist Exhibitions, was in 1874. The Impressionists subsequently held seven additional shows, the last in 1886. Degas took a leading role in organizing the exhibitions, and showed his work in all but one of them, despite his persistent conflicts with others in the group. He had little in common with Monet and the other landscape painters, whom he mocked for painting outdoors. Conservative in his social attitudes, he abhorred the scandal created by the exhibitions, as well as the publicity and advertising that his colleagues sought. He bitterly rejected the label Impressionist that the press had created and popularized, and his insistence on including non-Impressionist artists such as Jean-Louis Forain and Jean-François Raffaëlli in their exhibitions created rancor within the group, contributing to their eventual disbanding in 1886.
As his financial situation improved through sales of his own work, he was able to indulge his passion for collecting works by artists he admired: old masters such as El Greco and such contemporaries as Manet, Pissarro, Cézanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh. Three artists he idolized, Ingres, Delacroix, and Daumier, were especially well represented in his collection.
In the late 1880s, Degas also developed a passion for photography. He photographed many of his friends, often by lamplight, as in his double portrait of Renoir and Mallarmê. Other photographs, depicting dancers and nudes, were used for reference in some of Degas' drawings and paintings.
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 anti-Semitic leanings to the fore and he broke with all his Jewish friends. His argumentative nature was deplored by Renoir, who said of him: "What a creature he was, that Degas! All his friends had to leave him; I was one of the last to go, but even I couldn't stay till the end."
Although 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, restlessly wandering the streets of Paris before dying in 1917.
The Dance Class (La Classe de Danse),1873-1876, oil on canvas, by Edgar DegasDegas is often identified as an Impressionist, an understandable but insufficient description. 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, and hoping to infuse their scenes with immediacy.
Technically, Degas differs from the Impressionists in that he "never adopted the Impressionist color fleck", and he continually belittled their practice of painting en plein air. "He was often as anti-impressionist as the critics who reviewed the shows", according to art historian Carol Armstrong; as Degas himself explained, "no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and of the study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament, I know nothing." Nonetheless, he is described more accurately as an Impressionist than as a member of any other movement. His scenes of Parisian life, his off-center compositions, his experiments with color and form, and his friendship with several key Impressionist artists most notably Mary Cassatt and Édouard Manet all relate him intimately to the Impressionist movement.
Degas' style reflects his deep respect for the old masters (he was an enthusiastic copyist well into middle age) 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, in which his gradual progress toward a less idealized treatment of the figure is already apparent. During his early career, Degas also painted portraits of individuals and groups; an example of the latter is The Bellelli Family (c.1858-67), 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. L'Absinthe, 1876, oil on canvas, by Edgar DegasBy the late 1860s, Degas had shifted from his initial 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 identified, dancers.
In many subsequent paintings dancers were shown backstage or in rehearsal, emphasizing their status as professionals doing a job. It is these dancers who have determined Degas's popularity to this day, from 1870 he increasingly painted ballet subjects. Amongst other reasons the ballet series was easy to sell and seeing as his brother's debts had left the family bankrupt, Degas needed money. Degas began to paint café life as well. He urged other artists to paint "real life" instead of traditional mythological or historical paintings, and the few literary scenes he painted were modern and of highly ambiguous content. For example, Interior (which has also been called The Rape) has presented a conundrum to art historians in search of a literary source; internal evidence suggests that it may be based on a scene from Thérèse Raquin.
As his subject matter changed, so, too, did Degas' technique. The dark palette that 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. The lack of color in the 1874 Ballet Rehearsal on Stage and the 1876 The Ballet Instructor can be said to link with his interest in the new technique of photography. The changes to his palette, brushwork, and sense of composition all evidence the influence that both the Impressionist movement and modern photography, with its spontaneous images and off-kilter angles, had on his work.
Place de la Concorde, 1875, oil on canvas, by Edgar Degas, Hermitage Museum, St. PetersburgBlurring 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 compared the viewpoint to that of a distracted spectator at a ballet, and says 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'."
Musicians in the Orchestra, 1872, oil on canvas, by Edgar DegasDegas' 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, as Stuckey explains, 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 anti-Semitism. In 1881 he exhibited two pastels, Criminal Physiognomies, that depicted juvenile gang members recently convicted of murder in the "Abadie Affair". Degas had attended their trial with sketchbook in hand, and his numerous drawings of the defendants reveal his interest in the atavistic features thought by some nineteenth century scientists to be evidence of innate criminality. In his paintings of dancers and laundresses, he reveals their occupations not only by their dress and activities but also by their body type. His ballerinas exhibit an athletic physicality, while his laundresses are heavy and solid.
At the Races, 1877-1880, oil on canvas, by Edgar Degas, Musée d'Orsay, Paris.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 more easily to reconcile his facility for line 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 media lithographs and experimental monotypes. He was especially fascinated by the effects produced by monotype, and frequently reworked the printed images with pastel.
La Toilette (Woman Combing Her Hair), c. 1884–1886, pastel on paper, by Edgar Degas, Pushkin Museum, MoscowThese 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 are simplified.
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 his life, and after the heyday of the Impressionist movement, that most obviously use the coloristic techniques of Impressionism.
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, as Andrew Forge has written, "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." Degas himself explained, "In art, nothing should look like chance, not even movement".
Personality and politics
Degas, who believed that "the artist must live alone, and his private life must remain unknown", lived an outwardly uneventful life. In company he was known for his wit, which could often be cruel. He was characterized as an "old curmudgeon" by the novelist George Moore, and he deliberately cultivated his reputation as a misanthropic bachelor. Profoundly conservative in his political opinions, he opposed all social reforms and found little to admire in such technological advances as the telephone. He fired a model upon learning she was Protestant. Although Degas painted a number of Jewish subjects from 1865 to 1870, his anti-Semitism became apparent by the mid 1870s. His 1879 painting At The Bourse is widely regarded as strongly anti-Semitic, with the facial features of the banker taken directly from the anti-Semitic cartoons rampant in Paris at the time.
The Dreyfus Affair, which divided Paris from the 1890s to the early 1900s, further intensified his anti-Semitism. By the mid 1890s, he had broken off relations with all of his Jewish friends, publicly disavowed his previous friendships with Jewish artists, and refused to use models who he believed might be Jewish. He remained an outspoken anti-Semite and member of the anti-Semitic "Anti-Dreyfusards" until his death.