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Edgar Degas

French Painter, Sculptor, and Printmaker

Movements and Styles: Realism, Impressionism

Born: July 19, 1834 - Paris, France

Died: September 27, 1917 - Paris, France

Edgar Degas Timeline


"Women can never fogive me; they hate me, they feel I am disarming them. I show them without their coquetry."
Edgar Degas
"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."
Edgar Degas
"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."
Edgar Degas
"One must do the same subject over again ten times, a hundred times. In art nothing must resemble an accident, not even movement."
Edgar Degas
"No art is less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters."
Edgar Degas
"An artist must approach his work in the spirit of the criminal about to commit a crime."
Edgar Degas

"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 Signature


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 the Impressionists focused their attacks on their formal innovations, it was Degas's lower-class subjects that brought him the most disapproval.

Key Ideas

Degas's 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.
Degas's 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).
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.
There is a very interesting and puzzling dichotomy in the way Degas approached his female subjects. There is much evidence that he was a misogynist, and also, much to prove that he was enamored with the female form that he attempted to represent it in its most absolute state through hundreds of painstaking studies. Whatever the reality may be, his studies and output furthered the exploration of the figure and the portrait in all of the visual arts.

Most Important Art

Edgar Degas Famous Art

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.
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Edgar Degas Artworks in Focus:



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. Degas is even later said to follow Ingres's maxim: "Draw lines, young man., draw lines." 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 1856, 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.

Degas Self-portrait (1855)
Degas Self-portrait (1855)

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.

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Edgar Degas Biography Continues

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.

Degas Self-portrait (1857-1858)
Degas Self-portrait (1857-1858)

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. Any male painter, who spends so much time (famously) depicting the female form is bound to receive his share of criticism - and the same hold true for a female that abstracts the nude male.

Degas Self-portrait (1857-1858)
Degas Self-portrait (1857-1858)

In fact, there is much to consider regarding his treatment of the female subject in his work, much of this (and the below) is wonderfully discussed in an essay on Degas by the writer and art critic Julian Barnes. For example, the detractors include the poet Tom Paulin who in 1996 said "in this exhibition are women in contorted poses ... They're like performing animals, they're like animals in the zoo." Further, the curator and historian Tobia Bezzola wrote: "It is not known whether Degas had sexual relationships with women; at any rate there is no evidence that he did .. [His] series of monotypes depicting brothel scenes is the most extreme example of the mixture of voyeurism and abhorrence with which he reacted to female suxuality." But it is also worth remembering the usual practices of painters of his generation who tended to work from a female model, drew her in a semi-voluptious (or even pornographic) manner, and concluded (or maybe started with) a tryst of one type of another. In Degas's case, one sitter reported that "He's a strange gentleman - he spends the whole four hours of the sitting combing my hair". That particular sitter was complaining. Upon significant study of the hundreds of depictions women dancing, washing, brushing their hair by Degas, an observer may well realize the painter in a more gentle light.

Late Period

<i>The Apotheosis of Degas</i> (1885) by Edgar Degas and Walter Barnes was modeled after the painting <i>Apotheosis of Homer</i> by Ingres.  In a joking manner, here Degas also declares his artistic lineage.
The Apotheosis of Degas (1885) by Edgar Degas and Walter Barnes was modeled after the painting Apotheosis of Homer by Ingres. In a joking manner, here Degas also declares his artistic lineage.

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.

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.


Pablo Picasso's <i>Nude Wringing her Hair</i> (1952) borrows from Degas heavily.
Pablo Picasso's Nude Wringing her Hair (1952) borrows from Degas heavily.

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. Some have even compared his treatment of the other sex linked to his antisemitism and overall lack of moral compass.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Edgar Degas
Interactive chart with Edgar Degas's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart


Diego VelazquezDiego Velazquez
Eugène DelacroixEugène Delacroix
Jean-Auguste-Dominique IngresJean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Honoré DaumierHonoré Daumier
Gustave CourbetGustave Courbet


Louis LamotheLouis Lamothe
Édouard ManetÉdouard Manet
Eugéne BoudinEugéne Boudin
Henri Fantin-LatourHenri Fantin-Latour


Edgar Degas
Edgar Degas
Years Worked: 1839 - 1877


Paul CézannePaul Cézanne
Paul GauguinPaul Gauguin
Vincent van GoghVincent van Gogh


Walter SickertWalter Sickert
Mary CassattMary Cassatt
Henri de Toulouse-LautrecHenri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Claude MonetClaude Monet
Pierre-Auguste RenoirPierre-Auguste Renoir



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Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf

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Useful Resources on Edgar Degas




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


Degas and the Dance Recomended resource

By Susan Goldman Rubin

Degas (Basic Art)

By Bernd Growe

Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec: London and Paris 1870-1910 Recomended resource

By Anna Gruetzner Robins, Richard Thomson

The Private Collection of Edgar Degas

By Ann Dumas

More Interesting Books about Edgar Degas
A Draftsman Who Turned More and More to Dynamism

By Ken Johnson
The New York Times
November 4, 2010

Who's the Voyeur Now, Picasso?

By Karen Rosenberg
The New York Times
August 26, 2010

Degas's Ballet Students Teach the Lessons of Their Art

By Alastair Macaulay
The New York Times
September 2, 2008

Degas, Director: An Easel Becomes a Stage

By Holland Cotter
The New York Times
August 5, 2005

More Interesting Articles about Edgar Degas
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