"A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people."
EDGAR DEGAS SYNOPSIS
Always remembered as an, 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 , 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.
EDGAR DEGAS KEY IDEAS
MOST IMPORTANT ART
The Bellini Family (1859)
This portrait, with its subdued palette and its unconventional grouping of figures, such as the man having his back to the viewer, demonstrates the impact of Realism on the young Degas. He created it over the course of several trips to Italy, spanning 3-4 years. Each family member—his aunt, her husband and his two young cousins Giovanna and Giuliana—was sketched individually, and then organized into a family portrait, becoming more of a study of individual personalities than a study of them as a group. The father is suggested to be emotionally distant from his wife and daughters, while the mother stands dignified and decisive. Giovanna on the left is clearly the mother's favored daughter, while Giuliana, with one leg poised, is positioned just so to suggest a division in her allegiance.
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
EDGAR DEGAS BIOGRAPHY
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, a former pupil of . That same year, the Exposition Universelle took place, and Degas was enthralled by 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(1859). He spent countless hours combing the museums and galleries of Italy, carefully studying works by , and , among others.
In 1864, while copying a picture byat the Louvre, he met , 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(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 and , 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(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, , , and , as well as older artists who had informed Degas as a young man, like and . 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.
EDGAR DEGAS LEGACY
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.
EDGAR DEGAS QUOTES
"I would have been in mortal misery all my life for fear my wife might say, 'That's a pretty little thing,' after I had finished a picture."
- Degas responding to a question on why he never married
"It is all very well to copy what one sees, but it is far better to draw what one now only sees in one's memory. That is a transformation in which imagination collaborates with memory."
"One must do the same subject over again ten times, a hundred times. In art nothing must resemble an accident, not even movement."
"No art is less spontaneous than mind. What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters."
"An artist must approach his work in the spirit of the criminal about to commit a crime."
Edgar Degas Influences
Interactive chart with Edgar Degas's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
Edgar Degas BOOKS AND ONLINE RESOURCES
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