Edgar Degas, a French artist well known for his painting, sculpture, prints, and drawings, was an influential member of the Impressionist group, though he preferred to be identified as a Realist or Independent.
Degas was born in Paris on July 9, 1834. His father, Auguste, was a wealthy banker with an interest in music; his American mother, Celestine, was an amateur opera singer. When Edgar, the eldest of five siblings, was a child, the family spelled its name “de Gas”; as an adult he chose to switch to the less complicated Degas.
At age 11, Edgar Degas attended the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, where his subjects were Latin, Greek, and ancient history. He also developed an early interest in art; by the age of 18, he had registered at the Louvre as a copyist and turned one of his rooms at home into a studio. In 1853, he enrolled to study law at the University of Paris, as expected by his father. A meeting with Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres in 1855 was a turning point in his life and the same year, he gained admission to the École des Beaux-Arts. After only a year at the school, Degas left to travel, paint, and study in Italy for the next three years. He made several sketches of the paintings and frescoes he saw in Italy and was deeply influenced by the work of the Italian Renaissance painters.
Return to France
Degas began working on the “Bellelli Family” towards the end of his studies in Italy and continued working on it from the time he returned to France in 1859 till 1867. He also started working on grand historical paintings with the intention of submitting his work to the Paris Salon. The Salon accepted his “Misfortunes of the City of Orléans” in 1865 and, after this, Degas moved away from painting academic subjects.
Degas met Édouard Manet in 1862 and the two artists developed a lifelong friendship. Both Degas and Manet disliked the traditional art establishment and believed that the artists needed to seek out more modern techniques and subject matters. By the late 1860s, Degas became part of a group of avant-garde artists in Paris, including Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, and Alfred Sisley, who were interested in finding ways for artists to engage with the modern world. Soon after, with the start of the Franco-Prussian War, Degas left France, returning only in 1873.
The Impressionist Years
Thoroughly disillusioned with the Salon by the time he returned to Paris, Degas and a group of artists worked towards organizing an independent show. The Impressionists, as they came to be known, held eight exhibitions, in seven of which Degas showed his work. In spite of being an important member of the group, Degas was uncomfortable with the Impressionist approach of painting outdoors and had little in common with some of the other group members. He also never used the Impressionist color fleck. The group finally broke up in 1886.
In spite of his conservatism with regard to the Impressionists, Degas had a modern approach in picking subjects. These included scenes of Parisian life and the city’s denizens, painted from radical perspectives. Degas was a regular visitor to the opera house and a subject he revisited throughout his career was ballerinas at work. He drew from Parisian high society as well as the lives of the poor and marginalized, including prostitutes, laborers and laundresses.
By the 1880s, Degas began collecting works of other artists, including El Greco, Ingres, Delacroix, and some of his own contemporaries, including Pissarro, Gauguin, and Van Gogh. He also began experimenting with photography, using friends and fellow artists as models. Some of the photographs were used as references for his paintings.
Degas’s eyesight began to weaken in the 1880s and eventually became so weak that he could no longer create any work after 1912.
His work received much acclaim during his lifetime and he was considered one of the boldest and most innovative painters among his contemporaries. He died in Paris on September 27, 1917, at the age of 83.
Though he was a highly acclaimed artist, there are mixed opinions on Degas due to his anti-Semitic views and what some regard as misogynistic overtones in his portrayal of women.
Born:July 9, 1834
See his work at:
HONOLULU: Honolulu Museum of Art
LONDON: The National Gallery
NEW YORK: Metropolitan Museum of Art
PARIS: Musee d’Orsay
KITAKYUSHU: Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art
Died:September 27, 1917
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