Edgar Degas: life and works
Edgar Degas (19 July 1834 – 27 September 1917) was a French artist famous for his paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings. He is especially identified with the subject of dance; more than half of his works depict dancers. He is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism, although he rejected the term, preferring to be called a realist.
He was a superb draftsman, and particularly masterly in depicting movement, as can be seen in his renditions of dancers, racecourse subjects and female nudes. His portraits are notable for their psychological complexity and for their portrayal of human isolation.
A man of many talents, Edgar Degas was a famous French Impressionist painter who depicted the Parisian life in beautiful images. Edgar had a fascination for human figures and many of his paintings featured dancers in unusual positions.
Edgar Degas biography
During his course at École des Beaux-Arts, which was a popular art school in France, he spent three years travelling in Italy where he studied and copied the arts of Da Vinci and Michelangelo. After he returned to Paris, he started making portraits; however his innovation with techniques did not go well with Salon, a group of powerful artists who presided over art exhibitions. In the next few years, Edgar was part of a group of avant-garde artists who dwelled on how painters could take a modern approach to art. With the outbreak of Franco-Prussian War, Edgar enrolled as a National Guard. But, he escaped much of the bloodbath that followed for the establishment of the Third Republic by travelling to New Orleans. After he returned to Paris, Edgar along with his fellow avant-garde artists formed the Society of Independent Artists, a group which aimed to exhibit their art without the control of Salon. This group came to be known as ‘Impressionists’ for their style of art, although Degas himself was more comfortable with the term ‘Realist’ or Independent’.
Childhood & Early Life
Edgar Degas was born on 19 July 1834, in Paris France, to Augustin De Gas and Célestine Musson De Gas. His father was a banker while his mother was a Creole from New Orleans, America.
Edgar’s parents were musically inclined with her mother being an amateur opera singer and his father arranging for recitals of musicians at their homes. To pursue his passion for music Edgar went to Lycee Louis-le-Grand. This school was known for its classical education.
In 1853, at the age of 18, young Edgar was permitted to copy the art of the great masters in Louvre. This was a common practice in those days where would-be painters developed their technique by trying to imitate the works of the masters. Edgar produced copies of works of Raphael and of the works of contemporary painters such as Delacroix and Ingres.
In 1855, Edgar took admission in Ecole des Beaux-Arts to study art but he left the school after one year. After leaving the school, he spent the next three year traveling, painting and studying in Italy. He made copies of the works of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. It was here that he learnt the technique of classical linearity which is one of the most important aspects of his painting.
In 1859, Edgar came back to Paris and started making portraits and depicted large historical scenes. He produced these works before Salon, a group of influential French artists who controlled the entire scenario of public exhibitions. Edgar’s technique met with a frown as his innovative ideas did not conform to the traditional style of Salon.
In 1862, Edgar met painter Edouard Manet and a healthy rivalry developed between the two of them. Both of them shared disdain for the presiding art scenario and wanted to explore modern techniques and subject matter.
In 1868, Edgar and Manet along with a group of other artists formed an avant-garde group which was against the conventional ideologies of Salon. It was a tumultuous time in the history of France with the advent of Franco-Prussian war. Being a nationalist Edgar signed up for French National Guard. However, he avoided much of the bloodshed that happened for the establishment of Third Republic as he was travelling to New Orleans.
After he came back from New Orleans, Edgar along with his fellow avant-garde artists formed the Society of Independent Artists, a group which wanted to exhibit their art without the control of the powerful Salon. This group eventually came to be known as the ‘Impressionists’. But Edgar was more comfortable with the term ‘realist’ for his technique.
In 1874, Society of Independent Artists organized its first exhibition. The main subject of Edgar’s paintings was women like ballet dancers, laundresses and milliners. However, the approach was quite radical for its times.
In the next 12 years, the Impressionists organized eight exhibitions, with Degas exhibiting his work at all the exhibitions. Some of his most famous paintings of the era were: ‘Woman Ironing’, ‘The Dancing Class’, and ‘Dancers Practicing in the Bar’. There was a deep underlying classical influence in his art work, due to his academic training. This technique was in contrast with the Impressionists who concentrated more on colours and surface texture.
In 1880, Edgar sculpted the famous ‘The Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer’. Critics were bedazzled by its form, and some called it brilliant.
In 1886, at the final exhibition of the Impressionists, Edgar exhibited a group of paintings which showed nude women in various stages of bathing. This stirred quite a controversy, and while some appreciated his bold but honest approach, others called it ‘ugly’.
During the 1890s Edgar gained an unfavourable position in Paris over the ‘Dreyfus Affair’. A young Jewish captain was imprisoned in the context of spying and treason. Although evidences suggested that Dreyfus was innocent, he was released after 10 years as there were strong anti-Semitic feelings against him. Edgar supported the anti-Semitic movements and many of his friends and followers were taken aback by his ideologies. This caused a rift between him and avant-garde artist friends.
In the later years of his life, Edgar cut down on his painting and became an avid art collector. His art influenced many young painters of the 20th century including the famous Pablo Picasso.
Edgar’s painting ‘Frieze of Dancers’ which was produced in 1895 remains his most celebrated work. It is said that the rhythmic movement in the painting especially the flow or motion which happens because the eyes rotate or roam to capture the entire painting, makes it unique.
Some of his other notable works include: ‘The Bellelli Family’, ‘Woman with Chrysanthemums’, ‘Chanteuse de Café’, and ‘At the Milliner’s’.
Personal Life & Legacy
Edgar never married, but led a colourful life courting many women in his days. One of his famous affairs was with Mary Cassatt, who was also an intimate friend.
Edgar died on 27 September 1917, in Paris, at the age of 83.
Edgar Degas art
Degas called himself a “realist”. He wanted to paint scenes of real life and try to capture a moment, almost like a camera. His paintings may look spontaneous, but he spent a lot of time planning them out. He would study his subjects and make lots of sketches before starting on a painting.
Like many Impressionists, Degas liked to experiment with light, angles, and focus. Sometimes subjects would have their backs to the viewer or be cut off by the edge of the canvas. He would paint subjects off center and have them doing mundane things, like scratching their backs or even ironing clothes. He differed from many Impressionists in that he did not paint outdoors or study the effects of light on landscapes.
Portraiture (the creation of portraits) was more important for Degas than for any of the other impressionists. Some of his portraits are among the best produced in Western art since the Renaissance. Examples include The Belleli Family (1859), Head of a Young Woman (1867), Diego Martelli (1879), and Estelle Musson (1872–73).
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.
One of Degas’ favorite subjects was the ballet dancer. He loved to paint the dancers practicing in rehearsals or backstage before a show. He wanted to capture their energy and grace, but also their hard work and effort. During his career he created more than a thousand pictures of dancers.
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.
Edgar Degas facts
- When he was younger his family spelled their last name “de Gas”. He changed it to Degas when he was older.
- His eyesight failed later in life making it difficult for him to paint with oils. During this time he painted using pastels.
- He very seldom considered a painting complete, always wanting to improve them.
- He was never married.
- His most famous sculpture is called The Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer. It is the only sculpture that he exhibited during his lifetime.
- He once said “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
Edgar Degas quotes
“A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, and some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people.”
“You must aim high, not in what you are going to do at some future date, but in what you are going to make yourself do to-day. Otherwise, working is just a waste of time.”
“There is a kind of success that is indistinguishable from panic.”
“Art critic! Is that a profession? When I think we are stupid enough, we painters, to solicit those people’s compliments and to put ourselves into their hands! What shame! Should we even accept that they talk about our work?”
“We were created to look at one another, weren’t we?”
“I assure you no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament — temperament is the word — I know nothing.”
“It seems to me that today, if the artist wishes to be serious — to cut out a little original niche for himself, or at least preserve his own innocence of personality — he must once more sink himself in solitude. There is too much talk and gossip; pictures are apparently made, like stock-market prices, by competition of people eager for profit; in order to do anything at all we need (so to speak) the wit and ideas of our neighbors as much as the businessmen need the funds of others to win on the market. All this traffic sharpens our intelligence and falsifies our judgment.”
“What a delightful thing is the conversation of specialists! One understands absolutely nothing and it’s charming.”
“Everyone has talent at twenty-five. The difficulty is to have it at fifty.”
“It is very good to copy what one sees; it is much better to draw what you can’t see any more but is in your memory. It is a transformation in which imagination and memory work together. You only reproduce what struck you, that is to say the necessary.”
“I should like to be famous and unknown.”
“I put it (a still life of a pear, made by Manet, ed.) there (on the wall, next to Ingres’ Jupiter, ed.), for a pear like that would overthrow any god.”