(Hilaire Germain) Edgar Degas was a French painter and sculptor,
whose innovative composition, skillful drawing, and perceptive
analysis of movement made him one of the masters of modern art
in the late 19th century.
Degas is usually classed with the impressionists, and he exhibited
with them in seven of the eight impressionist exhibitions. However,
his training in classical drafting and his dislike of painting
directly from nature produced a style that represented a related
alternative to impressionism.
Degas was born into a well-to-do banking family on July 19, 1834,
in Paris. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts under a disciple
of the famous French classicist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres,
where Degas developed the great drawing ability that was to be
a salient characteristic of his art.
After 1865, under the influence of the budding impressionist
movement, he gave up academic subjects to turn to contemporary
themes. But, unlike the impressionists, he preferred to work in
the studio and was uninterested in the study of natural light
that fascinated them. He was attracted by theatrical subjects,
and most of his works depict racecourses, theaters, cafés, music
halls, or boudoirs. Degas was a keen observer of humanity—particularly
of women, with whom his work is preoccupied—and in his portraits
as well as in his studies of dancers, milliners, and laundresses,
he cultivated a complete objectivity, attempting to catch his
subjects in poses as natural and spontaneous as those recorded
in action photographs.
with Chrysanthemums, 1865
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
His study of Japanese prints led him to experiment with unusual
visual angles and asymmetrical compositions. His subjects often
appear cropped at the edges, as in Ballet Rehearsal (1876, Glasgow
Art Galleries and Museum). In Woman with Chrysanthemums (1865,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City), the female subject
of the picture is pushed into a corner of the canvas by the large
central bouquet of flowers.
|Ballet Rehearsal on Stage, 1874
Musée d'Orsay, Paris
In the early 1870s the female ballet dancer became his favorite
theme. He sketched from a live model in his studio and combined
poses into groupings that depicted rehearsal and performance scenes
in which dancers on stage, entering the stage, and resting or
waiting to perform are shown simultaneously and in counterpoint,
often from an oblique angle of vision.
|New Orleans Cotton Office,
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Pau
On a visit in 1872 to Louisiana, where he had relatives in the
cotton business, he painted The Cotton Exchange at New Orleans
(finished 1873), his only picture to be acquired by a museum in
In the 1880s, when his eyesight began to fail, Degas began increasingly
to work in two new media that did not require intense visual acuity:
sculpture and pastel. In his sculpture, as in his paintings, he
attempted to catch the action of the moment, and his ballet dancers
and female nudes are depicted in poses that make no attempt to
conceal their subjects' physical exertions.
|Edmond Duranty, 1879
pastel & tempera
Glasgow Museums & Art Galleries
His pastels are usually simple compositions containing only a
few figures. He was obliged to depend on vibrant colors and meaningful
gestures rather than on precise lines and careful detailing, but,
in spite of such limitations,these works are eloquent and expressive
and have a simple grandeur unsurpassed by any of his other works.
In 1881 he exhibited a sculpture, Little Dancer (a bronze casting
of which is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), and as his eyesight
failed thereafter he turned increasingly to sculpture, modeling
figures and horses in wax over metal armatures. These sculptures
remained in his studio in disrepair and were cast in bronze only
after his death.
Degas was not well known to the public, and his true artistic
stature did not become evident until after his death. He died
in Paris on September 27, 1917.