The career of Edgar Degas was a long one – about 60 years out of his total 83. And his style, unlike that of most famous artists who worked into their old age, never ceased developing, always seeking out new means of expression and technique. The art dealer Ambroise Vollard one day asked him why he had never married, to which he replied that he would live in constant fear that, whenever he completed a new painting, he would hear my wife say ‘That’s so pretty what you’ve done there!’. In fact, despite today’s almost universal appreciation and popularity of his images, it was never a conventional sense of beauty that attracted his talents.
Hilaire Germain Edgar de Gas (it was only later that he started to sign his works ‘Degas’) was born in Paris, the eldest of three boys and two girls born to a prosperous banker from a Neapolitan family and his Creole wife from New Orleans. He was actually named after his grandfathers – Hilaire Degas, a banker from Naples, and Germain Musson, a New Orleans merchant. However, his mother was to die when he was only 13 years old.
He was educated at the lycee Louis-le-Grand, a famous school for the elite, where he received a classical education and also met his long-time friends Henri Rouart, Paul Valpincon and Ludovic Halevy. Having received his baccalaureat in 1853, he enrolled at the Faculty of Law, although he preferred to spend his time in the print room of the Louvre where he had already made some copies from engravings, and also visiting the painting studios of Felix Barrias and Louis Lamothe. In 1855 he entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and began to study officially with Lamothe, a pupil of Ingres.
Not needing to study and compete for the Prix de Rome, in 1856 he set out for Italy, first visiting his family in Naples. In October 1857 he visited Rome where he met Gustave Moreau, already an influential figure eight years his elder. They became close friends and visited Florence together between June and August 1858.
From 1865 to1870 Degas exhibited each year at the Paris Salon. He also became friendly with Berthe Morisot and Edouard Manet and, in the summer of 1869, joined Manet in Boulogne and Saint-Valery-en-Caux where he painted some landscapes. Of all the artists of the time, it is doubtlessly Manet with whom he had the greatest affinity. They were both older than most of the Impressionist circle and both came from prosperous families so they could also meet socially within their family circles.
The tragic events of the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune of the years 1870-71, together with a lengthy stay in Louisiana visiting his family from October 1872 to March 1873, marked both an interruption and a turning point in his career. At the outbreak of the war, he joined the national guard together with his friend Manet and many other artists, however, the extreme cold during the siege of Paris affected his health badly and at the start of the Paris Commune he went to rest in the Orne with his friends the Valpincon family.
It was during the 1870s that Degas acquired his reputation as a painter of dancers. The reasons for his interest in dance were numerous and diverse but certainly stem from his life-long enthusiasm for music and the opera. The interior of the opera house also had many visual attractions – the possibility of unusual views onto the stage from balconies or the orchestral pit contrasts between light and darkness, illusion and reality, beauty and banality.
After the theme of dance, it was the racecourse that drew most of his attention. Racecourses were a new phenomenon in France, being introduced there from England in the 19th century. The Longchamp stadium opened in 1857 and it was this course which inspired Degas, Manet and, later, Toulouse-Lautrec. The exclusive Jockey Club was inaugurated in 1833 and it naturally attracted the same upper classes who attended the Paris Opera.
His first personal exhibition, which was held at the Durand-Ruel gallery in 1892, consisted of an extraordinary series of semi-abstract monotypes with enhanced colours representing mysterious landscapes. Besides such landscapes his style wasn’t to change dramatically from then on, although his subjects tended to grow in dimension – whereas previously, for example, he would have depicted a whole dance troupe, he now concentrated on perhaps just two or three figures in the foreground. This was undoubted to some extent due to his failing eyesight.
Degas himself gave another explanation for the mysterious power of his later works: “It’s one thing to copy what one sees, but it’s much better to draw what can only be seen in one’s memory. It’s a transformation during which the imagination collaborates with the memory … there your recollections and fantasies are freed from the tyranny exerted by nature.”
Degas continued to struggle against his blindness and worked up to about 1912 when he was forced to leave his apartment where he had lived for the past quarter-century and move to a more convenient address in the Boulevard de Clichy. But it proved to be an ordeal from which he never fully recovered and, despite the huge international success and high prices commanded by his works from 1900 onwards, he became sad and indifferent to the glory. He died on 27th September 1917 during the wartime, making his death go almost unnoticed by the world – although perhaps a fitting end for the man who had once said: “I would like to be famous but unknown”! He was buried in the cemetery of Montmartre.