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Edgar Degas
(1834-1917)

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France 1960. Edgar Degas, engraved after a contemporary photograph.

Edgar Degas, (Hilaire Germain) was a French painter, draughtsman, printmaker, and sculptor. 

Degas was a prominent member of the Impressionist group, but he stood somewhat apart from the other members, partly because he was interested in drawing and did not share the Impressionists’ fascination with natural light and atmosphere and partly because he was primarily a figure painter and had no interest in landscape (the archetypal Impressionist subject). 

His innovative compositions, skilful draughtsmanship, and perceptive analysis of movement make him one of the masters of modern art of the late 19th century. 

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. 

Italy 1987. Edgar Degas. "The Absinth Drinker". North Korea 1984. Edgar Degas. "Racecourse in front of the Tribune.". Rwanda 1980. Edgar Degas. "Three Dancers in the Wardrobe".

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. 

Monaco 1974. Edgar Degas. "Dancing Lesson" (fragment). France 1970. Edgar Degas. "Ballerina" (fragment). Monaco 1984. Edgar Degas. "Lady with Porcelain Vase".

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. 

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. 
Fujeira 1972. Edgar Degas. "The Morning Bath". Fujeira 1972. Edgar Degas. "Woman washing her right Thigh".

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. 

  • Fujeira 1972. "The Morning Bath" (1890). Pastel on Carton. The Art Institute of Chicago.

  • Fujeira 1972. "Woman washing her right Thigh". (1886). Pastel on Carton. Galleria Nazionale d'Arte, Rome. 

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. This is well illustrated in the simplicity of composition on the two below drawings, scanned from contemporary postcards. 
 
Edgar Degas. Pastel. "Dancer Stretching". Edgar Degas. Pastel. "Dancer standing".

By the 1890s worked only on large compositions and in 1908 he gave up art completely. Ever more reclusive and eccentric, Degas was evicted from his home and a new studio was found for him, but he never settled there, instead he wandered blindly in the streets. 

  • France 2006. Edgar Degas. "The Dancers", created 1884-85. Issued in a booklet of 10 self-adhesive stamps dedicated to the Impressionists. The stamp is a so-called NVI (No Value Indicated), and is permanently valid for domestic letters [within France] up to 20 grams. 

France 2006. Edgar Degas. "The Dancers", created 1884-85.

Famous and revered, Degas died in Paris on 27th September 1917, and is buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre, Paris. He left more than 2,000 oil paintings and pastels, and 150 sculptures, the latter unsurprisingly mostly depicting race horses and dancers. 

Sources and Links: 

Other Impressionist painters on this site (in alphabetical order). 

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