French Painter, Sculptor, and Printmaker
Born: July 19, 1834 - Paris, France
Died: September 27, 1917 - Paris, France
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"A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people."
Always remembered as an Impressionist, Edgar Degas was a member of the seminal group of Paris artists who began to exhibit together in the 1870s. He shared many of their novel techniques, was intrigued by the challenge of capturing effects of light and attracted to scenes of urban leisure. But Degas's academic training, and his own personal predilection toward Realism, set him apart from his peers, and he rejected the label 'Impressionist' preferring to describe himself as an 'Independent.' His inherited wealth gave him the comfort to find his own way, and later it also enabled him to withdraw from the Paris art world and sell pictures at his discretion. He was intrigued by the human figure, and in his many images of women - dancers, singers, and laundresses - he strove to capture the body in unusual positions. While critics of Impressionists focused their attacks on their formal innovations, it was Degas's lower-class subjects that brought him the most disapproval.
Most Important Art
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Foyer de la Danse (1872)
There is something unique and alluring in all of Degas's studies of ballerinas, of which there are many. In Foyer de la Danse he presents us with one of the unconventional perspectives that are so typical and distinctive in his work. Rather than evoke the light and atmosphere of the scene, as some of his Impressionist peers might have done, Degas has chosen to create a striking arrangement of space, one which echoes the experiences his contemporaries might have had throughout the new modern city. To achieve this, rather than compose the figures in a more orderly and centered fashion, he has dispersed them about the canvas, leaving a chair incongruously placed in the center foreground. Instead of viewing the room as a traditional box-like container for the figures, he paints it at an angle, suggesting multiple vantage points, almost as if this were an early blueprint for Cubism. The approach is characteristic of his modern, realist approach to composition.
Oil on canvas - Louvre, Paris
Edgar Degas was the eldest of five children of Célestine Musson de Gas, an American by birth, and Auguste de Gas, a banker. Edgar later changed his surname to the less aristocratic sounding 'Degas' in 1870. Born into a wealthy Franco-Italian family, he was encouraged from an early age to pursue the arts, though not as a long-term career. Following his graduation in 1853 with a baccalaureate in literature, the eighteen-year-old Degas registered at the Louvre as a copyist, which he claimed later in life is the foundation for any true artist.
After a brief period at law school, in 1855 he was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he studied drawing under the academic artist Louis Lamothe, a former pupil of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. That same year, the Exposition Universelle took place, and Degas was enthralled by Gustave Courbet's Pavilion of Realism. It was also at the Exposition that Degas first met Ingres, a painter several years his senior, whose personal guidance was valuable.
Early Period and Training
In 1865, when Degas was aged 22, he traveled to Naples, Italy, to visit his aunt, the Baroness Bellini and her family. This three-year trip was an important moment in his development, and resulted in the Realist portrait The Bellini Family (1859). He spent countless hours combing the museums and galleries of Italy, carefully studying Renaissance works by Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian, among others.
In 1864, while copying a picture by Velázquez at the Louvre, he met Édouard Manet, who by chance was copying the same painting. His friendship with Manet was instrumental in the development of Impressionism. The following year, Degas exhibited at the Paris Salon, the first of six consecutive showings, showing works such as Édouard Manet and Mme. Manet and The Orchestra of the Opera (both 1868-69), paintings that subtly blurred the lines between straight portraiture and genre painting.
While Degas was serving with the National Guard in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), he realized that his eyesight was defective during rifle training. Evidence of this genetic defect can be seen even in his most celebrated paintings.
Although the 1860s was a productive period in Degas's career, his most renowned body of work was created in the 1870s. By this time he had discovered his true muse - Paris. He drew inspiration from its boulevards, cafés, shops, dance studios, drawing rooms, theaters and operas. And he became well known for his close observation, devoting much time to capturing the detail of surrounding human beings. Perhaps for this reason he rejected the label 'Impressionist', believing it implied something accidental and incomplete.
Evidence of this can be found in seminal works such as Foyer de la Danse (1872), Musicians in the Orchestra (1872) and A Carriage at the Races (1873). Each of these pictures also exemplify how Degas assumed unconventional point-of-views, suggesting the perspective of a distracted spectator. Yet unlike contemporaries like Renoir and Monet, Degas was not a plein air painter, preferring instead the light and reliability of the studio. Incidentally, his few outdoor scenes were produced from memory, or conjured in part from his imagination.
From 1872 to 1873, Degas made an extended trip to New Orleans to visit his brother René and other family members, including his uncle, who operated a failing cotton exchange. During this trip, he produced a number of important paintings, including A Cotton Office in New Orleans (1873), the only one of his works to be purchased by a museum in his lifetime. Following his return home the French Impressionists held their first group show at the Café Guerbois, in which Degas was included. Despite this association, Degas always held the other members at arm's length. He admired their work and shared many of their ideals, but he never entirely adhered to their philosophy. Nevertheless, he showed work in all but one Impressionist group show, including the final 1886 exhibition. As well, he single-handedly recruited more artists to exhibit at these shows than any other member.
Degas remained a bachelor throughout his life, and had few, if any, romantic entanglements. This has fueled speculation about the rationale for his unusual and generally unflattering images of women. His intent may have been to suggest the figures caught off-guard, though feminist critics have pointed out that the effect is often degrading.
As the 19th century came to a close, Degas's pace of work waned, and he began spending more time collecting the works of other artists he admired. He purchased work by contemporaries such as Manet, Pissarro, van Gogh, Gauguin and Cézanne, as well as older artists who had informed Degas as a young man, like Delacroix and Ingres. Late works, like the bronze Woman Rubbing Her Back with a Sponge (1900), is a testament to Degas's continued devotion to capturing the female form, but nothing he created in this period matches the power of his early work.
Although Degas abandoned oil painting later in life, he continued to work in a variety of media, including pastels and photography, yet sculpture became his preferred medium as his eyesight deteriorated. He increasingly became a recluse, and most of his friendships with artists like Manet and Renoir, eventually dissolved. These ruptures were hastened by Degas's outspoken anti-Semitism, which was amplified by his stance during the infamous Dreyfus Affair. He died in 1917.
Although Degas suffered criticism during his lifetime, by the time of his death his reputation was secure as one of the leaders of late 19th century French art. His distinct difference from the Impressionists, his greater tendency toward Realism, had also come to be appreciated. His standing has only increased since his death, though since the 1970s he was been the focus of a lot of scholarly attention and criticism, primarily focused around his images of women, which have been seen as misogynistic.
Influences and Connections
Artists, Friends, Movements
Artists, Friends, Movements
Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Useful Resources on Edgar Degas
| Degas and the Dance |
By Susan Goldman Rubin
| Degas (Basic Art) |
By Bernd Growe
| Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec: London and Paris 1870-1910 |
By Anna Gruetzner Robins, Richard Thomson
| The Private Collection of Edgar Degas |
By Ann Dumas
| Degas: The Man and His Art (Abrams Discoveries) |
By Henry Loyrette
| A Draftsman Who Turned More and More to Dynamism |
By Ken Johnson
| Who's the Voyeur Now, Picasso? |
By Karen Rosenberg
| Degas's Ballet Students Teach the Lessons of Their Art |
By Alastair Macaulay
| Degas, Director: An Easel Becomes a Stage |
By Holland Cotter
| A Master's Abiding Invitation to the Dance |
By Roberta Smith
| Peeping at Life Through a Keyhole |
By Benjamin Genocchio