Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas Painting Reproductions Gallery 3 of 131834-1917
French Impressionist Painter
The most brilliant draughtsman of his generation, Edgar Degas abandoned his law studies at the age of 18 to take up. his career as an artist. He always respected the tradition of the Old Masters, but drew his inspiration from the lively scenes of modern Paris. He is best known for his charmingly evocative pictures of the ballet dancers at the Paris Opera, rehearsing in the practise rooms, or transformed on stage.
A shy, awkward man, with a fetish for privacy, Degas was renowned for his aloof manner and sharp-tongued wit. He had only a few close friends, and apparently no love affairs, preferring to devote his life to art. In later years, as the daylight hurt his failing eyes, and he grew even more anti-social, he withdrew into his dimly-lit studio in Montmartre, where he worked obsessively. He died a lonely old man at the age of 83.
The haughty Degas was often seen in the streets and cafes of Paris -always smartly dressed in his top hat - but his reserved manner and acid wit kept him aloof from many of his contemporaries.
Edgar Degas was born in Paris on 19 July 1834. He was baptized Hilaire-Germain-Edgar de Gas, but adopted the less pretentious "Degas" early in his career as an artist. His father, Auguste de Gas, was a successful banker, while his mother, Celestine Musson, came from a wealthy colonial family. Her death when Degas was 13 seems to have been the most painful event of his early years.
As the child of well-off parents, Degas received a sound classical education at the Lycee Louis-le-Grand and then went on to study law. However, by his own account he spent most of his time copying the masterpieces in the Louvre. Eventually he told his father that he could not go on with law, and Auguste de Gas agreed to let the 18-year-old Edgar take up a career as a painter. A room in the de Gas house was converted into a studio, and Edgar was set to study under two now-forgotten masters - first Felix-Joseph Barrias, and later Louis Lamothe.
Lamothe had been a pupil of Jean Dominique Ingres, and taught Degas according to Ingres' principles, stressing the importance of drawing from memory and the Old Masters. In 1855 Degas met the master himself. He had intervened on Ingres' behalf when Edouard Valpincon, the owner of one of Ingres' paintings, had refused to release it for an exhibition. As it happened, Valpincon was a family friend, and young Edgar argued with him so forcefully that Valpincon changed his mind. He also took Degas to see the 75-year-old Ingres, who gave the aspiring artist weighty advice: "Draw lines, young man, many lines, from memory or from nature; in this way you will become a good artist." No doubt this was what Degas wanted to hear, since his skill as a draughtsman gave him a natural preference for a painting style that employed strong outlines.
Visits to Italy
During the 1850s, Degas made several trips to Italy studying in Rome and staying with relatives in Horence and Naples. But he soon got bored with looking at the landscape, and devoted all his attention to people and works of art. During these years and on his return home, he painted some fine portraits, occasionally - as in the portrait of his Italian cousins The Bellelli Family - anticipating the casual, modern look of his later work. But as a disciple of Ingres, he was still committed to the orthodox doctrine of the period -that history was the proper subject-matter for any serious artist. In such works as Young Spartans, he was making his own bid for fame as a painter in the approved "grand style".
At the very time when he was working in this style, Degas was also absorbing new influences, such as the art of Ingres' rival Eugene Delacroix. And while staying with his friends the Valpincons at their estate in Normandy, he became interested in painting horses. By about 1860, he was already making pictures of horse races, going out to Longchamp racecourse to sketch the jockeys and their mounts.
Friendship with Manet
In the year 1862 he met Edouard Manet, an artist who was just two years older than Degas and who came from the same upper-middle-class background. Manet was already establishing himself as an audacious painter of modern life and the hero of younger artists. His subsequent friendship with Degas involved a great deal of mutual influence, mutual respect, and an intermittent antagonism based on rivalry.
During the 1860s, Degas painted many portraits, including several of musicians who performed at his father's Monday evening entertainments. Among these were the guitarist Pagans and the bassoonist Desire Dihau, who became a close friend and who appears in The Opera Orchestra. Degas also became interested in the theatre as a subject, and embarked on his famous pictures of dancers.
He was already an obsessive worker. 'When I have not worked for a few hours', he remarked, 'I feel guilty, stupid, unworthy.' There was room in his life for friends, but not for love-affairs; as far as is known, he never became seriously involved with a woman. Indeed, he once observed in a typically clipped manner that "there is love and there is work, and we have only one heart".
In 1870, France went to war with Prussia and suffered a disastrous defeat. Degas was called up and served his time safely in the artillery. But during the Siege of Paris in 1871, his eyesight was seriously injured in some way - Degas himself believed that exposure to cold air was to blame -and for the rest of his life he worked with increasing difficulty and had to endure the terrifying threat of total blindness.
In 1872-73, Degas spent six months in New Orleans, where his mother's family was living. Though fascinated by Mississippi life, Degas insisted that - quite apart from the fact that the bright light hurt his eyes - he could only work properly in surroundings that he knew through and through. Without such knowledge, which enabled an artist to organize and select his material, a painting was no better than a snapshot.
A family crisis
Degas' unwavering sense of family pride had consequences that were to affect his life deeply. In 1874 his father died and it was discovered that the family bank had accrued vast debts. Worse was to come. Degas' brother Rene had borrowed 40,000 francs to start his New Orleans business, and by 1876 the creditors were threatening to sue. To uphold the family name, Degas and his brother-in-law settled the debts from their own pockets, sacrificing much of their personal fortunes in the process. Degas sold his house and his art collection, and for the first time was compelled to earn a living by selling his own art. He later complained bitterly of his need to produce something every day.
Degas' difficulties with money may have been partly self-induced, since he was such a perfectionist that he often failed to deliver commissions, and sometimes even bought back his own works in the belief that they were still in need of improvement. Stacked away, such items often lay forgotten in his studio for years; in some instances they were only brought to light again after the artist's death.
Meanwhile, Degas had emerged in an unfamiliar role, as an exhibition organizer. Together with Pissarro, Monet, Renoir and others, he formed an association to mount an exhibition independently of the official system which controlled French artistic life. Degas threw himself into the venture enthusiastically. The exhibition, held at the photographer Nadar's studio in the Boulevard de Capucines in 1874, was labelled "Impressionist" by a hostile critic - and the name stuck, much to the annoyance of Degas.
His work, laboriously created in the studio, had little in common with the Impressionist landscapes of an artist such as Monet, who painted rapidly in the open air. To Degas, the exhibition was a "realist Salon" in which modern subjects and the modern spirit might at last receive their due.
The abuse showered on the Impressionists left Degas unmoved. As always, he was defiantly independent and disdainful. He dismissed one critic, the extremely ugly Albert Wolff, with the remark "How could he understand? He came to Paris by way of the trees!" This contemptuous streak impressed the Irish novelist George Moore, who spent some years in Paris as an art student. He remembered evenings passed with Degas and Manet in the later 1870s, when they frequented a cafe called the Nouvelle Athenes in the Place Pigalle. "Manet", he wrote, "sits next to Degas, that round-shouldered man in a pepper-and-salt suit... his eyes are small, and his words are sharp, ironical, cynical."
A daunting figure
Degas had now earned a reputation as a "bear", whom it was dangerous to approach - at his fiercest where his working life was concerned. His studio was sacrosanct, a dusty, dimly-lit place, filled with folders, boxes and equipment in an apparent disorder which no one but the artist was allowed to disturb. Few people were even allowed in except models and dealers.
But Degas could be sociable enough when his art required it. He took part in seven of the eight Impressionist exhibitions held between 1874 and 1886. He haunted the new Paris Opera, sketching dances in rehearsal and performance, just as he later entered the worlds of milliners and laundresses. And in the late 1870s, as well as exchanging asperities with Manet at the Cafe Nouvelle Athenes, he became a close friend of the American painter Mary Cassatt.
Many of Degas' contemporaries believed that the two were lovers, but if so they displayed a heroic discretion, leaving behind not a scrap of sentimental evidence for the benefit of posterity. Degas did, however, once make a revealing comment about Cassatt: T would have married her, but I could never have made love to her.
During the 1880s, Degas' eyesight deteriorated further, despite his use of dark glasses and the attention of specialists. This was probably one of the reasons why he began to paint less, turning to more easily manageable media such as sculpture -in which touch played a controlling part - and pastel, which could be executed relatively quickly and without laborious definition of detail.
Failing eyesight was probably also responsible for his increasingly unsociable and eccentric behaviour. After the last Impressionist exhibition in 1886 he showed his work only rarely and shunned all publicity, while still complaining that he was short of money. Any reference to him in newspapers or magazines, however well-meaning and favourable, threw Degas into a rage and shut his door for good to the author. "What a fate!" he complained, "To be handed over to writers!"
Having withdrawn from public life, Degas relied more than ever on a small band of old, close friends to provide refuge from solitude and shadows. In Paris he had two "homes". On Thursday evenings he dined at the house of the librettist Ludovic Halevy, whose wife Degas had known since childhood, and he spent Fridays with an old school friend, the engineer Henri Rouart, and his family. Outside Paris, there were the Valpincons in Normandy and others with whom he could escape from the studio, assured of tolerance and sympathy for his bursts of temper and sudden depressions. But Degas could still be good company on occasions, devising entertaining photographic tableaux which he recorded with the camera he carried about with him. And in 1890 there was one unusually sustained period of jollity in Degas' existence when he persuaded the sculptor Paul Bartholome to embark with him on a jaunt through Burgundy in a horse and trap.
The Dreyfus case
Degas' last years were gloomy, and his life was further embittered from 1897 by the Dreyfus case. In 1894 Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer, had been convicted of espionage and sent to Devil's Island; but as it became clear that an injustice had probably been committed, the reopening of the case divided the French people into two camps. Degas, right-wing and anti-Semitic, broke with Jewish and liberal-minded friends of long standing such as Pissarro and the Halevys; and the eventual exoneration of Dreyfus only served to embitter him further. In 1912, Degas was forced to move from his studio in the Rue Victor-Masse. This - combined with failing health and eyesight - brought his art to a halt. Deprived of his only consolation, he took to wandering the streets of Paris in his long, ancient Inverness cape, at risk from the growing motorized traffic and being helped across streets by gendarmes. He survived into the Great War, dying at last on 27 September 1917.
The artist at work
Little Dancer aged 14 - this is a cast of the only sculpture that Degas ever exhibited - when first seen in 1881, it stunned artists and critics alike with its unprecedented realism. The adolescent girl with her scraggy arms was dressed in real clothes, and the original wax model even wore a wig. Degas may have been inspired by the wax-works which he had recently seen at Madame Tussaud's in London.
Degas made a number of on-the-spot studies of Parisians at work. But unlike his Impressionist friends Monet and Renoir, he composed his finished works behind the closed doors of his studio.
They call me the painter of dancers. They don't understand that the dancer has been for me a pretext for painting pretty fabrics and for rendering movement.' In this outburst against the critics, Degas sums up the intention of his paintings: their significance lies not just in the subject-matter, no matter how descriptive or provocative that might be. For when Degas painted a dancer, it was not the dance that attracted him, but the spectacle of a body in space, and the challenge of transforming it into art.
Throughout his career, Degas felt the pull of two rival forces - on the one hand the need to make art modern, just as his friends Manet and the Impressionists were doing; and on the other, his desire to respect and continue the great achievements of the Old Masters. He always saw himself as an artist in the great European tradition, whose achievements were based on disciplined drawing, composition and expressive colour.
Advice from a hero
Drawing was one of Degas' greatest delights. During his youth he copied many pictures in the Louvre, and became a superb draughtsman. He never forgot the advice of his hero Ingres, to "Draw lines, young man, many lines", and he realized that the discipline of drawing gave him an important link with the past that some of his contemporaries lacked. All through his career, Degas drew obsessively, whether he was scribbling down a face seen in a cafe or labouring for months over a carefully posed nude. Drawing was a way of sharpening his observation and of preparing for the paintings he wanted to create.
As a young artist, Degas concentrated on traditional subjects producing large and ambitious canvases, laboriously prepared through a series of sketches and preliminary studies. But in the 1860s, modern subjects began to exert their appeal - the bright lights and fashionable high-life, as well as more mundane scenes, of contemporary Paris. Degas turned his attention to the race-track, the concert hall and the back-street laundry.
These new subjects demanded a radical change in technique. Degas started to work on smaller canvases, sacrificing the fine detail of his earlier work in favour of bold, eye-catching effects. He began experimenting with off-centre compositions, and figures cut in half by the picture frame - as if the viewer were glimpsing an unexpected slice of Parisian life as he hurried past.
In the 1870s Degas' fascination with new pictorial effects led him to investigate different techniques and media, such as pastel, distemper and print-making. Pastel suited his purpose best and became his favourite means of expression: with pastel, he could draw and colour at the same time, building up rich effects of texture and modelling without the tedious delays of traditional oil-painting. To achieve the effect he wanted, Degas would dampen his pastels with steam from a kettle, rub them with his fingers and build up crusts of colour with scribbles and hatchings.
Degas was an obsessional artist, capable of being swept off his feet by whatever novelty or discovery had caught his imagination, whether it be photography, sculpture or some new etching technique. He tried both etching and lithography, and more or less invented a new printing process called monotype, which he used to produce scores of sparkling, inventive and surprisingly intimate scenes, including witty glimpses of brothel life.
In his own time, the sexuality of Degas' art was highly controversial. Even the ruthlessly honest ballet pictures were considered distasteful by many of his own contemporaries. Laundresses, dancers and cabaret singers - all of whom Degas loved to paint and draw - had a reputation for loose morals, so his pictures were found shocking by both the general public and his staunchly bourgeois family. And the studies of nudes, now greatly admired and apparently innocent, caused a scandal when Degas' own suggestion that we were viewing them "through a keyhole" was interpreted as voyeuristic.
By the middle of his career, Degas' subject-matter was clearly established: portraits of friends, nudes, dancers and singers, laundresses and jockeys provided the basis for thousands of his drawings, pastels, paintings, prints and sculptures. He was an immensely hard-working, prolific artist, who gradually retreated into the world of his own studio, relying less and less on direct observation, and working increasingly from memory and his stockpile of drawings.
Degas would very often repeat his own compositions, adding a figure or inventing a new, quite imaginary combination of colours in his search for an image that satisfied him. Figures or horses from one painting crop up again in a different picture, years or even decades later. We are reminded of Degas' early years of study and his reverence for tradition: "No art was ever less spontaneous than mine," he wrote. "What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament I knew nothing."
Degas' tendency endlessly, to repeat particular themes, such as nudes washing themselves or dancers in rehearsal, with no apparent regard for the psychological predicament of his models, has given him a reputation as a harsh, cruel observer of humanity. It is true that Degas often conceals the faces of his models, but at the same time he pays them the ultimate compliment by recording, with unflinching honesty, the weariness of their limbs and the awkward dignity of their bodies. A committed professional himself, Degas always admired professionalism in others. Towards the end of his career, Degas became a virtual recluse, working as hard as his failing health and eyesight allowed him, still drawing, modelling in wax and retouching the pictures of his youth. He continued working even in his 70s, building up vibrant charcoal contours and blazes of pastel colours. All detail had long since gone, but he could still create extraordinarily powerful images, which stand comparison with the Old Masters he loved so much.
300 Paintings of Degas
Dancers Ascending a Staircase
Dancers in Blue
Before the Ballet
Two Dancers Resting
Portrait of the Painter Henri Michel-Levy
After the Bath, Woman Drying her Neck
Woman Drying Herself
Woman Combing her Hair
Young Spartans Exercising
Promenade beside the Sea
Princess Pauline de Metternich
Portrait of Elena Carafa
Helene Rouart in her Father's Study
Combing the Hair ('La Coiffure')
After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself
Dancer in Green
At the Milliner's
The Rehearsal Onstage