Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
(Hilaire-Germain) Edgar Degas was a French artist especially notable for his perceptive analysis of movement and expression and his ability to capture a figure in motion. Although he is considered to be one of the founders of Impressionism, he disliked being classified as such and thought of himself as a realist. Degas worked in various mediums; including sculpture, oils, watercolours and his preferred choice of pastels. Now primarily associated with depictions of dance, Degas encouraged other artists to capture the contemporary world surrounding them.
Born in 1834 to a wealthy banking family in Paris, Degas quickly displayed an interest in art and started painting early on. He received a baccalaureate in literature in 1853 and then registered at the University of Paris in the Faculty of Law as his father encouraged him to attend, but failed to apply himself to his schoolwork. He began to study under Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres in 1855 and registered at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts that same year. As a supplement to his artistic studies, he travelled extensively and lived in Italy from 1856-1859 painting prolifically while learning from and copying the old masters.
Degas started his career working on historical paintings, one of which he exhibited at the Salon in 1865 to little acclaim. He continued to exhibit his work at the Salon for the following five years, although after the Salon of 1865 he no longer chose to submit any historical paintings, instead focusing on contemporary matter. He took a temporary hiatus from painting at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, when he enlisted in the National Guard. It was at this time his eyesight was found to be impaired, and he was plagued with worry about and problems with his eyesight for the remainder of his life.
After an extended visit to his brother in New Orleans in 1872, Degas returned to Paris the following year. His father died in 1874, and crippling family debt induced Degas to sell his estate, including a fairly extensive art collection. For the next decade Degas became dependant on his art as his sole source of income and it was during this period that he created some of his best and most notable work.
In 1874 Degas joined a group of young artists that exhibited independent of the Salon, of which he had grown weary. He was one of the main organizers of the exhibitions and included his work in all but one of the eight shows. Degas quickly garnered a reputation for being cantankerous and became the catalyst for many of the conflicts within the group of painters, eventually leading to the disbanding of the Impressionist group in 1886. Although he included his work with that of the Impressionists, Degas did not have much in common with the group and he intensely disliked the label. Degas did not adopt their bright and saturated colour schemes, mocked them for painting en plein air and did not display the same sense of spontaneity in his work, which was more studied. Perhaps Degas himself explained it best, stating that “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”.
Degas’ style was an evolving entity, his technique and subject matter changed greatly throughout his career. Starting out painting historical scenes as an homage to the great masters, Degas quickly lost interest and instead grew enamoured of painting ‘real life’. Racecourses offered him a chance to foray into the contemporary world and he soon began to paint women at work, both laundresses and milliners. He exhibited at the Salon in 1868 Mlle. Fiocre in the Ballet La Source, a painting that would introduce dance, the subject with which he would become most identified with. In his work Degas emphasized ballet dancers as professionals at work, painting them at rehearsal or backstage. From 1870 onwards, he painted ballet series increasingly, perhaps due to their popularity and his need for money after his father’s death.
Degas was involved in creating portraits throughout his career, and this led him to evidence the ways his subject’s employment or social standing lent themselves to their physical appearance. In his works on dancers and laundresses, he not only depicts their occupations by what they wear but also by their bodies. Degas’ laundresses are stout and portly while his ballerinas exude an athleticism and dynamic physicality.
In the mid-1870’s he returned to etching and in the 1880’s he discovered an interest in photography. Dabbling in these different mediums had a profound effect on Degas’ later works. He began to paint women at their toilette, brushing their hair or towelling off. Well after the height of Impressionism’s popularity, Degas would move closer towards its use of form and colour, using loose strokes of his paintbrush and abstraction of form. Throughout his works he chose unusual perspectives, often cropping his viewpoint to create a sense of movement that was very much in keeping with Impressionist ideals.
Degas turned to sculpture increasingly as his eyesight grew worse, and when he did paint he worked in pastels which allowed him more leeway. He blamed many of his unfinished later works on his eyes, although he was notorious for beginning many projects and seldom considered any of his artwork truly complete. Over 150 sculptures were found in his home when he died in 1917, primarily of dancers and horses, some of which were bronzed and are now displayed in museums around the world.
Degas was an avid art collector and as his finances improved he amassed an impressive collection including both his contemporaries and old masters. He considered housing his collection in a gallery, but never did and the entire collection was sold a year after his death.
Degas was of the belief that an artist should keep his life intensely private and outwardly lived an uneventful life. He was deeply conservative and an outspoken anti-Semitic, his painting At the Bourse (1879) displays in the banker’s facial features a strong anti-Semitic sentiment. In his later years he lived a reclusive life, the same contrary nature that helped cause the Impressionist group to disband also left Degas with little personal life or friends. Despite becoming well-known and respected during his own lifetime, Degas died almost blind and alone in Paris in 1917. The resulting discovery of his sculptures and paintings that he surrounded himself with in his final years led to vast public sales posthumously and further prominence in the art world, solidifying his position of one of the most fascinating Masters of French Impressionism.