Edgar Degas Life and Art Periods

"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 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.

EDGAR DEGAS KEY IDEAS

Degas rejected the typical subjects that were made popular by the academies, such as scenes from history and myth, and instead he explored modern life. Like the Realists and Impressionists, he often painted images of middle class leisure in the city.
Degas' academic training encouraged a strong classical tendency in his art, which conflicted with the approach of the Impressionists. While he valued line as a means to describe contours and to lend solid compositional structure to a picture, they favored color, and more concentration on surface texture. As well, he preferred to work from sketches and memory in the traditional academic manner, while they were more interested in painting outdoors (en plein air).
Degas' enduring interest in the human figure was shaped by his academic training, but he approached it in innovative ways. He captured strange postures from unusual angles under artificial light. He rejected the academic ideal of the mythical or historical subject, and instead sought his figures in modern situations, such as at the ballet.
Like many of the Impressionists, Degas was significantly influenced by Japanese prints, which suggested novel approaches to composition. The prints had bold linear designs and a sense of flatness that was very different from the traditional Western picture with its perspective view of the world.
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MOST IMPORTANT ART

TITLE: The Bellini Family (1859)
The Bellini Family(1859)
Artwork Description & Analysis: 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

  • The Bellini Family(1859)
  • Édouard Manet and Mme. Manet(1868-69)
  • Foyer de la Danse(1872)
  • A Cotton Office in New Orleans(1873)
  • Little Dancer of Fourteen Years(1881)
  • La Toilette (Nude Arranging Her Hair)(1884-86)
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EDGAR DEGAS BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

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.

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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.

Edgar Degas Biography

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.

Mature period

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.

Edgar Degas Image

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.

Late Period

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.

Edgar Degas Portrait

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.

Original content written by Justin Wolf
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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

Edgar Degas Influences

Interactive chart with Edgar Degas's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Diego Velazquez
Diego Velazquez
Diego Velazquez was a Spanish artist, court painter for King Philip IV, and one of the leading figures in the Baroque period. Known as a master of detail and light, Velazquez's work has been a significant influence on generations of artists and movements, from Realism to Surrealism.

Modern Art Information Diego Velazquez
Eugène Delacroix
Eugène Delacroix
Eugène Delacroix was a mid-nineteenth-century French painter and pioneer of European Modernist painting. Known primarily as a Romantic, Delacroix's paintings were passionate in their depictions of love, war and human sensuality, earning the artist both praise and controversy in his time. His preoccupation with color-induced optical effects and use of expressive brushstrokes were crucial influences on Impressionism and Pointillism.

Modern Art Information Eugène Delacroix
Honore Daumier
Honore Daumier
Honore Daumier was a French painter, sculptor and printmaker during the mid-nineteenth century. Although an accomplished artist in several media, Daumier is most well-known for his political caricatures and satirical art. He was also a key figure in the painterly movement of French Naturalism.

Modern Art Information Honore Daumier
Gustave Courbet
Gustave Courbet
Gustave Courbet was a French painter and chief figure in the Realist movement of the mid-nineteenth century. His paintings often contained an emotional bleakness, and were praised for their precision and use of light. Along with Delacroix, Courbet was a key influence on the Impressionists.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Gustave Courbet
Louis Lamothe
Louis Lamothe
Louis Lamothe was a nineteenth-century French academic and history painter, and instructor at the École des Beaux-Arts. A former pupil of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Lamothe never made much of an impression with his own art, but did go to instruct a host of highly renowned artists, including Edgar Degas, Henri Regnault and James Tissot.

Modern Art Information Louis Lamothe
Edouard Manet
Edouard Manet
Edouard Manet was a French painter and a prominent figure in the mid-nineteenth-century Realist movement of French art. Manet's paintings are considered among the first works of art in the modern era, due to his rough painting style and absence of idealism in his figures. Manet was a close friend of and major influence on younger artists who founded Impressionism such as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Edouard Manet
Ingres
Ingres
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres was a French Neoclassical painter. Although he considered himself to be a history painter in the tradition of Nicolas Poussin and Jacques-Louis David, it was Ingres's portraits, both painted and drawn, that were recognized as his greatest legacy.

Modern Art Information Ingres
Eugéne Boudin
Eugéne Boudin
Eugéne Boudin was a French marine and landscape painter who worked primarily in the second half of the nineteenth century. His reputation steadily grew throughout his long career, eventually being awarded the Legion of Honor in 1892. His plein air method of working had a significant influence on the young Monet and consequently the Impressionist movement.

Modern Art Information Eugéne Boudin
Henri Fantin-Latour
Henri Fantin-Latour
Henri Fantin-Latour was an Academy painter at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. He was best known for his still-lifes and group portraits of his Parisian artist and writer friends.

Modern Art Information Henri Fantin-Latour
Realism
Realism
Realism is an approach to art that stresses the naturalistic representation of things, the look of objects and figures in ordinary life. It emerged as a distinct movement in the mid-nineteenth century, in opposition to the idealistic, sometimes mythical subjects that were then popular, but it can be traced back to sixteenth-century Dutch art and forward into twentieth-century styles such as Social Realism.

Modern Art Information Realism
Romanticism
Romanticism
Romanticism was a nineteenth-century movement that celebrated the powers of emotion and intuition over rational analysis or classical ideals. Romantic artists emphasized awe, beauty, and the sublime in their works, which frequently charted the darker or chaotic sides of human life.

Modern Art Information Romanticism
Japonisme
Japonisme
Japonisme describes the influence of Japanese art, especially woodblock prints, on French artists in the second half of the nineteenth century. Many Post-Impressionists were influenced by the flat blocks of color, the emphasis on design, and the simple, everyday subject matter.

Modern Art Information Japonisme
Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne was an influential French Post-Impressionist painter whose depictions of the natural world, based on internal geometric planes, paved the way for Cubism and later modern art movements.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Paul Cézanne
Paul Gauguin
Paul Gauguin
Paul Gauguin was a French Post-Impressionist artist who employed color fields and painterly strokes in his work. He is best known for his primitivist depictions of native life in Tahiti and Polynesia.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Paul Gauguin
Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch painter, commonly associated with the Post-Impressionist period. As one of the most prolific and experimental artists of his time, van Gogh was a spontaneous painter and a master of color and perspective. Troubled by personal demons all his life, many historians speculate that van Gogh suffered from a Bipolar disorder.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Vincent van Gogh
Walter Sickert
Walter Sickert
Walter Sicket was a German-born, English painter and a co-founder of the Camden Town Group, a collection of British Post-Impressionist artists that also included Wyndham Lewis and Augustus John. Sickert's oeuvre favored urban scenes and portraits of ordinary people, often in moody or somewhat macabre settings, yet painted with a soft Victorian sensibility. Sickert was also something of an eccentric and aloof character, and due to some circumstantial evidence, is considered by some historians to be the infamous Jack the Ripper - a theory that isn't without controversy.

Modern Art Information Walter Sickert
Mary Cassatt
Mary Cassatt
Mary Cassatt was a nineteenth-century American painter and printmaker, and is commonly associated with the French Impressionists. Cassatt moved to Paris in 1866 - where she would live until her death - and began studying privately with instructors from the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and befriended the likes of Degas, Pissaro and Morisot. Cassatt's painting style was not terribly distinctive, but her subject matter was, painting portraits of women in quiet solitude, and some of the more intimate moments enjoyed between mothers and daughters.

Modern Art Information Mary Cassatt
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was a Post-Impressionist artist who depicted the dancers, prostitutes, drinkers, and other characters of fin-de-siecle Paris. He is known for his paintings, his caricatures of friends, and his well-designed posters for Parisian dance halls.

Modern Art Information Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Claude Monet
Claude Monet
Claude Monet was a French artist who helped pioneer the painterly effects and emphasis on light, atmosphere, and plein air technique that became hallmarks of Impressionism. He is especially known for his series of haystacks and cathedrals at different times of day, and for his late Waterlilies.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Claude Monet
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Pierre-Auguste Renoir was one of the leading figures of French Impressionism during the late-nineteenth century. Renoir tended to favor outdoor scenes, gardens bathed in sunlight, and large gatherings of people. Known as a master of light, shadow and color, Renoir was also highly esteemed for his depiction of natural movement on the canvas. In terms of the French Impressionists' lasting popularity and fame, Renoir is perhaps second only to Monet.

Modern Art Information Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Impressionism
Impressionism
A movement in painting that first surfaced in France in the 1860s, it sought new ways to describe effects of light and movement, often using rich colors. The Impressionists were drawn to modern life and often painted the city, but they also captured landscapes and scenes of middle-class leisure-taking in the suburbs.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Impressionism
Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism refers to a number of styles that emerged in reaction to Impressionism in the 1880s. The movement encompassed Symbolism and Neo-Impressionism before ceding to Fauvism around 1905. Its artists turned away from effects of light and atmosphere to explore new avenues such as color theory and personal feeling, often using colors and forms in intense and expressive ways.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Post-Impressionism
Symbolism
Symbolism
Symbolism is an artistic and literary movement that first emerged in France in the 1880s. In the visual arts it is often considered part of Post-Impressionism. It is characterized by an emphasis on the mystical, romantic and expressive, and often by the use of symbolic figures.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Symbolism
Renaissance
Renaissance
In the Renaissance, artists rediscovered techniques like rational space, three-point perspective, and plastic forms. Paintings frequently emphasized the human figure, allegory, classical mythology, and Christian themes.

Modern Art Information Renaissance
Michelangelo
Michelangelo
Michelangelo was a Renaissance artist working in Italy in the sixteenth century. Although first a sculptor, he is perhaps best known for his large-scale painted frescos in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

Modern Art Information Michelangelo
Raphael
Raphael
Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, better known as Raphael, was an Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance. He is celebrated for the perfection and grace of his paintings and drawings. Together with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, he forms the traditional trinity of great masters of that period.

Modern Art Information Raphael
Titian
Titian
Titian was the leading painter of the Venetian school in sixteenth century Italy, spanning a more than sixty-year career. His wide range of subject matter and deep interest in color has heavily influenced further developments in Western art.

Modern Art Information Titian
Camille Pissarro
Camille Pissarro
Camille Pissarro was a French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painter. Known as the "Father of Impressionism," he used his own painterly style to depict urban daily life, landscapes, and rural scenes.

Modern Art Information Camille Pissarro
The Bellini Family
The Bellini Family

Title: The Bellini Family (1859)

Artwork Description & Analysis: 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

Édouard Manet and Mme. Manet
Édouard Manet and Mme. Manet

Title: Édouard Manet and Mme. Manet (1868-69)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This unconventional portrait of Manet and his wife provides a wonderful example of Degas as the “distant spectator,” capturing a moment of solitude that the subjects might prefer go unnoticed. However, a riddle surrounds it. Degas painted it as a tribute to his friends, and it originally showed Mme. Manet playing the piano. However, some time after he had presented the portrait to them, he visited their house only to discover the painting had been mutilated and the right of the picture had been cut away. Degas was furious and removed the picture, though it was never repaired. Why Manet cut the picture down remains unknown.


Oil on canvas - Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art, Japan

Foyer de la Danse
Foyer de la Danse

Title: Foyer de la Danse (1872)

Artwork Description & Analysis: 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

A Cotton Office in New Orleans
A Cotton Office in New Orleans

Title: A Cotton Office in New Orleans (1873)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Like his earlier study of the Bellini family, A Cotton Office in New Orleans is the result of several individual sketches and careful attention to detail over a length of time. In the center, reading a newspaper, is Degas's brother, Rene, and in the foreground, somberly handling a ball of cotton, is Rene's father-in-law, Michael Musson, who operated the cotton exchange. Its complex handling of deep space and multiple figures is testimony both to Degas' skill in composition, and his love of striking perspectives, something that makes his work stand out from that of many of his peers among the Realists and Impressionists. He manages to knit together the fractured space by stretching areas of white across the center of the picture, letting our eye move from the cotton on the left, through the newspaper, to the shirt of the figure on the right.


Oil on canvas - Musée des Beaux-Arts, Pau

Little Dancer of Fourteen Years
Little Dancer of Fourteen Years

Title: Little Dancer of Fourteen Years (1881)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Originally cast in wax, with a skeleton comprised of paint brushes, Degas' study of the young ballet student Marie van Goethem was eventually cast in bronze in 1922, five years after the artist's death. In fact, 27 bronze sculptures were made. It is characteristic of a number of wax sculptures he produced after the 1860s. When he exhibited this figure at the sixth Impressionist exhibition of 1881 (the only such figure to be publicly shown), viewers were shocked by its realism. It is highly unusual in incorporating a miniature gauze skirt, silk bodice and fabric slippers, and in this respect prefigures the introduction of real objects into sculpture in the 20th century.


Bronze with cloth accessories - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

La Toilette (Nude Arranging Her Hair)
La Toilette (Nude Arranging Her Hair)

Title: La Toilette (Nude Arranging Her Hair) (1884-86)

Artwork Description & Analysis: La Toilette is typical of Degas' many nudes, and typical of an approach to the nude that made this body of work particularly controversial - both among his contemporaries and among latter day critics. It demonstrates his tendency to capture the figure from behind, while washing; to show only a fragment of the figure in order to suggest the whole; and to place the figure in shallow space, allowing her contours to produce the strong linear design that balances the picture. Degas' interest in the nude might have been encouraged by his academic training, though his posing suggests the modern innovations of the Realists and Impressionists. Indeed when Degas exhibited a suite of pastel nudes such as this at the sixth Impressionist exhibition of 1886, critics attacked their unusual posing. The picture also demonstrates the artist's use of pastel, which he devoted more time to in later years.


Pastel on paper - Pushkin Museum, Moscow

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.