Full name, Hilaire Germaine Edgar De Gas; born July 19, 1834, in Paris, France; died, September 27, 1917, in Paris, France; son of Auguste and Celestine (Musson) De Gas. Education: Attended the Lycee Louis-de-Grand and the Ecole des Beaux-Art.
Artist. Major collections of Degas's work are found in Chicago, IL, New York, NY, Paris, France, d'Orsay, France, Berlin, Germany, Boston, MA, the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery in London, England, and in Washington, DC.
Lettres, edited by Marcel Guerin, B. Grasset (Paris, France), 1931, translation published as Letters, B. Cassirer (Oxford, England), 1947.
Huit sonnets, edited by J. Nepveu-Degas, [Paris, France], 1946.
Edgar Degas was a complex artistic genius known for his lively, informal studies of the ballet, horse racing, and working women. He is classed with the French Impressionist school of art because of his concentration on scenes of contemporary life and his desire to capture the transitory moment. Since his death in 1917, the Degas legend has evolved to mythic proportions, describing him as a nearly blind, cross old man. His personality was, in fact, reserved yet witty, unsure of himself and his talent. Although considered to be an Impressionist—indeed, he is credited with helping French painter Edouard Manet (1832-1883) to develop the movement—he resented the label. (Impressionists labored to represent objects in the same way that our eye sees them, often in quick bursts of color and blurry forms.) As Rachel Barnes explained in her introduction to Degas by Degas, while "other members of the group were principally concerned with observing the transient [changing] effects of light and atmosphere on landscape and water, Degas was far more attracted to the urban life of Paris.... He was more interested in recording the human figure in action than in observing natural phenomena." He was inspired by both photography and Japanese prints, which contributed to his exploration of unique compositions and unexpected viewing angles.
A Classical Education
Born Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas in Paris, France, on July 19, 1834, he was the oldest of the five children of Auguste De Gas, a prosperous French and Italian banker from Naples, Italy, and the former Celestine Musson, the American born daughter of a wealthy New Orleans, Louisiana, businessman. Auguste loved art and music and frequently took Edgar to visit the famous French art museum, the Louvre, in Paris. Auguste had his own great collection of art as well, favoring fifteenth century Italian painters. Celestine died when Edgar was thirteen. Sometime after 1870 Edgar Degas took back the original spelling of the family name, Degas.
From an early age Edgar loved books, especially the classics, and was a serious student in high school. Degas received his early education at the Lycee Louis le Grand in Paris. Although a grim and shabby institution, it was nevertheless the most respected school in the country. Its former students include the writers Victor Hugo, Voltaire, and Moliere. At this school, Degas studied Greek, Latin, and rhetoric (the art of speaking or writing effectively), earning his degree in 1853. Earning a degree at that time was difficult and rare. Of his artist contemporaries, only French painter Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) achieved a similar education. Following graduation, Degas enrolled at the Faculte de Droit, half heartedly studying law to please his father. He soon quit to devote himself to art. In 1856 Degas went to Naples, where his sister lived, and eventually he settled in Rome for three years. He admired the Early Christian and medieval masterpieces of Italy, as well as the frescoes, panel paintings, and drawings of the Renaissance masters, many of which he copied. Back in Paris in 1861, he executed a few history paintings (then regarded as the highest branch of painting). Among these was the Daughter of Jephthah (1861), which is based on a melodramatic episode from the Old Testament. He was granted permission from the Louvre to copy works there. He briefly enrolled at another school, the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and studied under Flandrin, a former student of the French painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867).
Degas went on an artistic Italian tour in the summer of 1855, visiting his father's family in Naples. There he painted several portraits of family members, notably his grandfather. He also visited Rome, Florence, and Genoa, studying and copying museum works. He met and was greatly influenced by Gustave Moreau, the future teacher of French painters Georges Rouault (1871-1958) and Henri Matisse (1869-1954). Through Moreau, Degas came to appreciate the historical Romanticism of French painter Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863). This interest produced his sweeping paintings Daughter of Jephthah (1859-60) and Semiramis Building Babylon (c. 1861).
After three years Degas finally returned to Paris, where he established a studio on the Left Bank, an area popular with artists. He continued to live with his father, an arrangement that would continue until he was thirty-one. Although Auguste often despaired at his son's slow pace of development, he continued to support and encourage him. In their 1988 book, Degas, Robert Gordon and Andrew Forge pointed out that "few painters can have found parental support so easily or in such a well informed, cultivated form."
In 1861 Degas met Manet in the Louvre. They would later become friends. That same year, on a visit to an old schoolmate, Degas discovered Haras du Pin, a famous horse farm in the Normandy region of northwest France. He was deeply impressed by the lush green landscape and fascinated by the horses. He studied the build of the horses and the details of their movement and produced the first of his racehorse paintings. Representative of this period is Gentleman's Race: Before the Start (1862). Degas also painted portraits in the first half of the 1860s.
The year 1865 was significant in that Degas finally seemed to come to some decisions. That year he finished Self Portrait Saluting, which would be his final self portrait, and moved out of the family apartment at last. He also completed his last historical painting, War Scene in the Middle Ages. Biographer Roy McMullen noted these three developments and suggested in Degas: His Life, Times, and Work, "Although one can think of a plausible [likely] separate explanation for each fact . . . the three taken together suggest the end of identity worries and the emergence, or invention, of an independent persona." Degas submitted War Scene to the 1865 Paris Salon exhibition. Although it was an oil on paper, the committee in charge classified it as a pastel, so it was placed with the miscellaneous drawings. It consequently received no notice from either the public or the critics.
Finds His Artistic Identity
According to McMullen, about this time there swirled a fierce controversy in the art world, over subject matter, style, innovation, history, ideal beauty, and realism. It had its effect on Degas, and while retaining his respect for Ingres and Delacroix, he developed a new focus, finally finding his own artistic identity. Gordon and Forge indicated that in the years between 1865 and 1870, Degas thoroughly redefined himself as an artist. "He had defined a position for himself," they wrote, "that was altogether distinct from that of any of his contemporaries—profoundly traditional in that it was based on studio practice, centered on the human figure, and on a Florentine conception of drawing; innovative in that it looked at every aspect of that tradition from a completely fresh angle." By 1868 Degas had exhibited four times at the Salon. His Laundry Girl, an 1869 pastel, was the first of a long series on working women.
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 interrupted Degas's painting. Both he and Manet served in the national guard. Degas visited London, England, in 1871 and again the next year, pursuing exhibiting opportunities with Durand-Ruel, a French art dealer who had temporarily moved his operation to London to escape the war. Durand-Ruel began to buy Degas's work in 1872 and by the end of the year had sold three of the ballet paintings. In the same year, Degas went to New Orleans to visit members of his family, who were in the cotton business.
Degas's father died in 1874, leaving muddled affairs and serious debts. His financial safety net gone, Edgar Degas finally faced the need to really sell his work, and in the next decade he was more active than ever before or after. He was involved in seven of the series of eight Impressionist exhibits and became associated with the movement, although he objected to being classified as an Impressionist. Subjects at this time included women bathing, as well as theater and brothel scenes. He explored printmaking and uses of new mediums such as pastels. He developed his sculpting abilities and became very successful at it. Degas met American artist Mary Cassatt (1845-1926) in 1877 and they became close friends. She appears in several Degas paintings of the period. By 1880 Degas had gathered a respectable group of devoted collectors.
Portraiture 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, and many reveal his profound understanding of human nature. In the Belleli Family (1859), a group portrait executed in Naples of his aunt, her husband, and their two daughters, Degas caught the divisions within a family. Belleli's emotional separation from his wife is suggested by his pose and by his physical isolation within the room, as he sits cramped at a fireplace, with his back to the viewer. One of the daughters repeats the triangular form of her mother, who shields her, while the other, shown in a more unstable pose, seems to be divided in her loyalties. Among Degas's other portraits are the very soft Head of a Young Woman (1867), Diego Martelli (1879), and Estelle Musson (1872-1873), the blind wife of Degas's brother Rene, in which the silver and rose tones bring into relief the remote tenderness of the sitter.
By 1870 Degas had abandoned his desire to become a history painter, and he drew his characters instead from the contemporary Parisian scene. While the bourgeois fashionable world of the ballet, theater, and racetrack interested him considerably, he sometimes depicted squalid scenes of dissipation, as in Absinthe (1876). Degas was especially attracted by the spectacle of the ballet with its elegance of costume and scenery, its movement, which was at once spontaneous and restrained, its artificial lighting, and its unusual viewpoints. Usually he depicted the ballerinas off guard, showing them backstage at an awkward moment as they fasten a slipper or droop exhausted after a difficult practice session. He seems to have tried deliberately to strip his dancers of their glamour, to show them without artifice.
On the surface Degas, operating in this candid-camera fashion, fits easily within the confines of impressionism as an art of immediacy and spontaneity. But these scenes of contemporary Parisian life are not at all haphazardly composed: the placement of each detail is calculated in terms of every other to establish balances which are remarkably clever and subtle and which are frequently grasped by the viewer only after considerable study. In Dancers Practicing at the Bar (1877) the perspective of the floorboards is so adjusted and the angle of vision so calculated that a resin shaker at the left of the canvas is able to balance in interest and compositional force the two dancers almost completely to the right of center.
Degas conceived of the human figure as operating within an environmental context, to be manipulated as a prop according to the dictates of greater compositional interest. Eccentricities of poses and cuttings of the figures, which were inspired to a degree by Japanese prints, do not occur accidentally in his paintings. In A Carriage at the Races (1873) the figure in the carriage to the left is cut nearly down the middle. Had Degas shown more of this figure, an obvious and uninteresting symmetry would have been set up with the larger carriage in the right foreground.
Switches From Oils to Pastels
In copying the Old Masters, Degas sometimes attempted to uncover their techniques. For example, when he copied Andrea Mantegna and some of the Venetians, Degas tried to simulate the Venetian method of building up the canvas with layers of cool and warm tones by a series of glazes. From the mid-1870s he worked increasingly in pastel; and in his last years, when his sight was failing, he abandoned oil completely in favor of pastel, which he handled more broadly and with greater freedom than before.
Pastel, for the most part an 18th-century medium, helped Degas produced qualities of airiness and lightness, as in the Ballerina and Lady with Fan (1885). However, Degas would endlessly experiment with unusual techniques. He would sometimes mix his pastel so heavily with liquid fixative that it became amalgamated into a sort of paste. He would do a drawing in charcoal and use layers of pastel to cover part of this. He would combine pastels and oil in a single work. He would even pass through a press a heavily pigmented charcoal drawing in order to transfer the excess of pigment onto a new sheet so as to make an inverse proof of the original. In his monotypes he used etching in a new way: he inked the unetched plate and drew with a brush in this layer of ink; then he removed all the ink in places to obtain strong contrasts of light and dark or painterly effects in this printing medium. Thus, in a variety of ways Degas succeeded in obtaining a richness of surface effects.
After 1866 Degas executed bronze statues of horses and dancers, up to three or four feet high, which complemented his interest in these subjects in his paintings. His bronze and painted wax figures of dancers, like the Little Dancer of Fourteen Years (1880-1881), are often clothed in real costumes, an innovation that gives them a remarkable immediacy. In the statues of dancers, Degas catches the figures in a transitory moment, as they are about to change position. As in the paintings, Degas strips the dancers of glamour and sometimes reveals them as scrawny adolescents. The surfaces of Degas's bronzes are not smooth but retain the rich articulations of the wax and thereby complement the expressive surfaces of the impressionist painting.
As he neared fifty, Degas began to withdraw, dreading old age. By 1885 his eyesight, never perfect, began to deteriorate. In spite of this, he traveled widely, creating a series of dreamlike pastel landscapes. He liked them so much that he exhibited the series at the Durand-Ruel gallery, the only one-man show of his work held in France during his lifetime. Between 1895 and 1898 he created his series of "Women Bathing" and several large-scale pastels. By 1904 his vision had deteriorated so severely that only sculpture and large compositions were possible.
If you enjoy the works of Edgar Degas
If you enjoy the works of Edgar Degas, you might want to check out the following:
The works of Edouard Manet, an Impressionist who painted scenes of everyday life in Paris.
The works of Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, whose paintings depict his experiences living among the Montmartre nightlife.
The works of Suzuki Harunobu, who introduced color to Japanese prints and frequently depicted graceful women.
The Louvre accepted Degas paintings for inclusion in the museum's collection in 1914. Degas died on September 27, 1917, and is buried in the family vault in Montmartre cemetery. He left behind, in addition to his own works, an enormous amount of art he had collected over the years, including works by Delacroix, Honore Daumier (1808-1879), Manet, Cezanne, Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Cassatt, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), and Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). It was one of the largest, most impressive collections ever amassed by an artist.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Armstrong, Carol, Odd Man Out: Readings of theWork and Reputation of Edgar Degas, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1991.
Barnes, Rachel, editor, Degas by Degas, Random House (New York, NY), 1990.
Bogg, Jean Sutherland, Drawings by Degas, New York, 1962.
Browse, Lillian, Degas Dancers, Faber and Faber (London, England), 1949.
Gordon, Robert, and Andrew Forge, Degas, Abrams (New York, NY), 1988.
Guerin, Marcel, editor, Degas Letters, Bruno Cassirer (Oxford, England), 1947.
Loyrette, Henri, Degas: The Man and His Art, translated by I. Mark Paris, Abrams (New York, NY), 1993.
McMullen, Roy, Degas: His Life, Times, and Work, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1984.
Meyer, Susan E., Edgar Degas, Abrams (New York, NY), 1994.
Rewald, John, Degas: Works in Sculpture, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1944.
Rich, Daniel Catton, Edgar Hilaire Germain Degas, Abrams (New York, NY), 1951.*
The French painter and sculptor Edgar Degas is classed with the impressionists (a painter who tries to represent a scene using dabs and strokes of paint) because of his concentration on scenes of contemporary life and his desire to capture the transitory (lasting a short time) moment, but he surpassed other impressionists in compositional (arrangement) sense.
The early years
Hilaire German Edgar Degas was born on July 19, 1834, in Paris, France, the son of a well-to-do banker. From an early age Edgar loved books, especially the classics, and was a serious student in high school. He was very attached to his younger brother, René, and he would later paint his image repeatedly. He was also fond of his mother, and her death when he was thirteen years old caused him much heartache. His father hoped Edgar would study law, but Edgar enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) in 1855. Degas always valued this early classical training. He had a great and enduring admiration for Ingres (1780–1867), a painter with a decisively linear orientation (characterized by a reliance on simple lines and brushstrokes).
In 1856 Degas went to Italy and settled in Rome for three years. He admired the early Christian and medieval masterpieces of Italy, as well as the frescoes (paintings done on fresh plaster), panel paintings, and drawings of the Renaissance (a period in Italy from roughly the fourteenth century until the seventeenth century that was marked by a renewed interest in the arts) masters. He copied many of these. At that time this was a common way of studying art.
Back in Paris in 1861, Degas executed a few history paintings (a painting that depicts a historical event; then regarded as the highest branch of painting). Among these was the Daughter of Jephthah (1861), which is based on an episode from the Old Testament in the Bible. He copied the works of the old masters (the well-regarded painters of the Renaissance) in the Louvre (a famous art museum in Paris). His reputation as a painter had already been established prior to the 1870s.
From 1862 until 1870 Degas painted portraits of his friends and family. In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War (a conflict between France and the German state of Prussia), he served in the artillery (the part of the army that deals with weaponry) of the national guard. Degas stopped exhibiting at the respected Salon in 1874 and instead displayed his works with those of the less well-established impressionists until 1886. Although he was associated with the impressionists, his preoccupation with drawing and composition was not characteristic of the group.
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).
Depiction of the modern scene
By 1870 Degas drew his characters from the contemporary Parisian scene, especially the ballet, theater, and racetrack. Usually he depicted ballerinas off guard, showing them backstage at an awkward moment as they fastened a slipper or drooped, exhausted, after a difficult practice session. Degas fits easily within the impressionist movement in producing art of immediacy (directness) and spontaneity (being unprepared or unplanned). But the placement of each detail is calculated in terms of every other to establish balances that are remarkably clever and subtle.
Degas thought of the human figure as a prop to be manipulated to achieve more interesting paintings. He was inspired by Japanese prints to create unusual poses and cut off figures in unusual ways. In A Carriage at the Races (1873) the figure in the carriage to the left is cut nearly down the middle. Had Degas shown more of this figure, an obvious and uninteresting symmetry (arrangement that is similar on both sides) would have been set up with the larger carriage in the right foreground.
In copying the old masters, Degas sometimes attempted to uncover their techniques. For example, when he copied Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506), Degas tried to copy Mantegna's method of building up the canvas with layers of cool and warm tones by using a series of glazes (thin, smooth, shiny coats).
From the mid-1870s Degas worked increasingly in pastel (pale, light crayons). In his last years, when his sight was failing, he abandoned oil completely in favor of pastel, which he handled more broadly and with greater freedom than before. Pastel, for the most part an eighteenth-century medium, helped Degas produce qualities of airiness and lightness, as in the Ballerina and Lady with Fan (1885). However, Degas experimented with unusual combinations of mediums in producing his colors and prints.
After 1866 Degas created bronze statues of horses and dancers, up to three or four feet high. His bronze and painted wax figures of dancers, like the Little Dancer of Fourteen Years (1880–81), are often clothed in real costumes. Degas again catches the dancers as they are about to change position. As in the paintings, Degas strips the dancers of glamour and sometimes reveals them as scrawny adolescents.
Beginning in the mid-1870s Degas suffered from failing eyesight. From the 1890s on, he became more and more of a recluse (one who lives in isolation). In the last years of his life he was almost totally blind, and he wandered aimlessly through the Parisian streets. He died on September 27, 1917, in Paris.
Degas was interested in combining the discipline apparent in classical art with the direct expression of contemporary life that characterized the impressionists. However, he did not share the impressionists' focus on light and color. He emphasized composition, line, and form. He is regarded as one of the greatest French artists, influencing later artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901) and Pablo Picasso (1811–1973).
For More Information
Loumaye, Jacqueline. Degas: The Painted Gesture. New York: Chelsea House, 1994.
Loyrette, Henri. Degas: The Man and His Art. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1993.
McMullen, Roy. Degas: His Life, Times, and Work. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.
Vollard, Ambroise. Degas: An Intimate Portrait. New York: Greenberg, 1927. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1986.
DEGAS, EDGAR (1834–1917), French painter, sculptor, and printmaker.
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas is probably best known for images of ballet dancers and the multimedia sculpture, The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1879–1881). This popular image, however, overlooks the formidable output of an artist who worked in multiple media, ranging from oils to prints to photographs, and who had an active career from the 1860s to 1912. An examination of Degas's paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, and sculptures reveals favorite themes and subjects—ballet dancers, portraits of contemporaries, washerwomen, women bathing, female nudes, café scenes, and equestrian pictures, particularly images of jockeys and horse races. Degas was born and remained a Parisian, and his art reflected the vibrant life of his Parisian milieu.
Edgar Degas was born in Paris on 19 July 1834 into a comfortable and cultured family. He attended the prestigious Lycée Louis-le-Grand and received a classical education. To study painting, he enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts (1855–1856), where he studied with Louis Lamothe (1822–1869), once a pupil of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), whom Degas met and greatly admired. In French painting of the first half of the nineteenth century, Ingres was considered the champion of drawing and the line, whereas Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), whom Degas equally regarded, was viewed as the master of color. After a year of schooling, Degas departed for a three-year sojourn in Italy, where he had relatives. Living and traveling in Naples, Rome, Florence, and other Italian locales, he studied and copied the Italian masters, including Giotto (1266/1267 or 1276–1337), Michelangelo (1475–1564), and Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), among others. Degas's training in art was thus rooted in the traditions of the old masters.
Back in Paris in 1859, Degas sought to establish himself as an artist by exhibiting at the official Salon. He exhibited twice, showing, for example, The Steeplechase in 1866, but found himself dissatisfied with his efforts at producing the type of grand historical paintings favored by the Salon's judges. Nevertheless, he produced a number of such works, including Young Spartans Exercising (c. 1860). During the 1860s, Degas gradually shifted the subjects of his art to contemporary Parisian scenes, and he painted horse racing, portraits of contemporaries, and ballet dancers. His circle of friends and acquaintances included realists, like the novelist and art critic Émile Zola (1840–1902), and independent artists associated with the Café Guerbois, like Édouard Manet (1832–1883), Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Camille Pissarro (1830–1903), and others. Despite his association with these future impressionists, with whom he would also exhibit, Degas preferred to work in the studio using drawings, and not out of doors.
After serving in the National Guard during the Paris Commune, Degas traveled to New Orleans, where he painted the celebrated Cotton Market at New Orleans (1873). Back in Paris, Degas showed ten works at the first Impressionist Exhibition (1874), including Carriage at the Races (c. 1872). He later exhibited at all of the Impressionist Exhibitions, except the seventh (1882). His celebrated and controversial The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen was shown at the sixth Exhibition (1881) and the female nudes shown at the Eighth Exhibition sparked adverse comments. Unlike the works of most of the impressionists, Degas's paintings and drawings, often images of contemporary Parisian life, became popular and they sold.
Two themes dominate Degas's life in the 1880s. His paintings, prints, and drawings tend to focus more on women, particularly ballet dancers, cabaret singers, and working women. There are also numerous views of nude or seminude women bathing or at the toilette, in which the focus is the human form, often depicted from unusual angles. Second, Degas expanded his own collection of art, which ultimately included not only his own works but also works by old masters like El Greco (Doménikos Theotokò-poulos; 1541–1614) and contemporaries like Manet and Paul Gauguin (1848–1903). He also collected works by Ingres and Delacroix. Degas's works continued to sell, and he patronized noted dealers like Paul Durand-Ruel (1831–1922) and Ambroise Vollard (1865–1939).
Changes in Degas's style became evident during the last of his working years. His use of color became bolder and his figures less realistic, as is evident in Fallen Jockey (c. 1896–1898). Some historians attribute this shift to Degas's failing eyesight, while others point to the influence of Gauguin and other artists. Furthermore, the Dreyfus affair had an impact on Degas's life. Because he took a position against Dreyfus, he lost many friends, especially those who were Jewish, and the size of his social world declined. In 1912, because of continued problems with his eyesight and failing health, he ceased working. He died on 27 September 1917 in Paris and is buried in Montmartre Cemetery in Paris.
Degas's reputation has fluctuated. At the height of his career in the 1870s and 1880s, he
was considered a realist or naturalist, one who successfully depicted the essence of contemporary Parisian life. Some, however, objected to his female nudes and complained that the models were unattractive. Nonetheless, works by Degas were sold to collectors and museums, and he avoided the poverty endured by many of his contemporary impressionists. At his death, the Parisian art world was amazed at the size and richness of his art collection. The late twentieth century brought renewed interest in Degas. Catalogs of his works have appeared, his letters and notebooks have been published, and several major exhibitions have taken place. A considerable body of scholarship has focused on his representations of women, and his overall career has been under going a major reassessment by scholars such as Richard Kendall.
Degas, Edgar. Degas by Himself: Drawings, Prints, Paintings, Writings. Edited by Richard Kendall. Boston, 1987. Lavishly illustrated selection of writings by Degas and his contemporaries.
Boggs, Jean Sutherland, et al. Degas. New York and Ottawa, 1988. Exhibition catalog, with chronologies and a bibliography.
Kendall, Richard. Degas: Beyond Impressionism. London and New Haven, Conn., 1996. Well-illustrated study of Degas's later years.
McMullen, Roy. Degas: His Life, Times, and Work. London, 1985. A comprehensive biography.
Robert W. Brown
Edgar Degas (Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas) (ēlĕr´ zhĕrmăN´ ĕdgär´ dəgä´), 1834–1917, French painter and sculptor, b. Paris; son of a banker. Although prepared for the law, he abandoned it for painting, studying at the École des Beaux-Arts with L. Lamothe, a student of Ingres, and in Italy, copying 15th- and 16th-century masters. He was precociously gifted as a draftsman and a brilliantly subtle and penetrating portraitist (e.g., Bellelli Family, 1859; Louvre). He exhibited for six years in the Salon (1865–70), but later ceased showing there and exhibited with the impressionists, whose works he admired although his approach often differed from theirs. An unflagging perfectionist, Degas strove to unite the discipline of classical art with the immediacy of impressionism. Trained in the linear tradition of Ingres, Degas shared with the impressionists their directness of expression and the interest in and portrayal of contemporary life. His favorite subjects were ballet dancers, women at their toilette, café life, and race-track scenes. He made notes and sketches from living models in motion to preserve informality of action and position. From these he organized his finished work in the studio, not directly from nature as his contemporaries did. Moreover, he created many daring compositional innovations. Influenced by Japanese prints and especially by photography, Degas diverged from the traditional ideas of balanced arrangements. He introduced what appeared to be accidental cutoff views, off-center subjects, and unusual angles, all quite carefully planned. Sometimes he effected a remarkable balance by giving special weight to the focus of interest, as in Woman with Chrysanthemums (1865; Metropolitan Mus.) and Foyer of the Dance (1872; Louvre). Gradually, Degas turned away from the medium of oil painting, perhaps because of his failing eyesight. He produced more freely executed, glowing pastels and charcoal drawings. His works in sculpture include many notable studies of dancers and horses. A number of his paintings and sculptures may be seen in the Metropolitan Museum. Many of his most celebrated works, including Absinthe, The Rehearsal, and Two Laundresses (1882) are in the Louvre. Ranked among the greatest of French artists, Degas profoundly influenced such later artists as Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso.
See his letters ed. by M. Guérin (tr. 1947); catalogs of his works by J. Rewald (sculpture, 1944), L. Browse (dancers, 1949), D. Cooper (pastels, 1954), J. S. Boggs (portraits, 1962, and drawings, 1966), and E. P. Janis (monotypes, 1968); studies by A. Vollard (tr. 1927), D. C. Rich (1951), D. Halévy (tr. 1964, repr. 1971), and C. Armstrong (1991). See also J. Adhémor and F. Cochin, Degas. The Complete Etchings, Lithographs, and Monotypes (1975); J. DeVonyar and R. Kendall, Degas and the Dance (2002).
Degas, (Hilaire Germain) Edgar