Carolyn and I have appreciated the work of French painter, sculptor, and printmaker Edgar Degas, who is well-known for his pastel drawings and oil paintings. Degas was prominent among the Impressionists, although he considered himself to be a “realist,” and his artwork is intimately intertwined with dance, as more than half of his work depicts female dancers. Degas helped to bridge the gap between traditional academic art and the radical art movements of the early 20th century.
Edgar Degas was born in Paris, France in 1834. His father was a banker, his mother an opera singer, and his family was moderately prosperous. Degas was the oldest of five children and his mother died when he was 13. Degas was largely raised by his father and several unmarried uncles. In 1845, Degas began his education at a leading boy’s school in central Paris, the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, where he received a conventional classical education. Degas began to paint early in life, and he turned a room in his home into an artist’s studio.
In 1853, Degas graduated from the Lycée with a degree in literature. Then, because of his father’s expectations, he enrolled in law school at the University of Paris, although he lacked the motivation to follow through with this, and applied little effort to his studies. In 1855, Degas was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he studied drawing, and his father then encouraged his artistic pursuits, taking him frequently to museums.
In 1856, Degas abandoned his education in Paris and left for Italy, where he studied painting and sculpture for three years. While he was there, Degas filled up notebooks with many sketches of historic buildings, people’s faces, landscapes, and quick pencil copies of oil paintings that he admired, as well as notes and reflections.
In 1859, Degas returned to Paris, set up a studio, and began work on several “history paintings,” a genre of painting defined by its subject matter rather than a particular artistic style or specific period. History paintings often realistically depict a moment in a narrative story. Although Degas is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism, he preferred to be called a “realist,” as he generally aimed to represent his subject matter truthfully and naturally. Between 1860 and 1865, Degas exhibited his work annually at The Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts.
In 1870, Degas enlisted in the National Guard, due to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, and this left him little time for painting during this period. After the war, Degas traveled to New Orleans, where he had relatives, and he stayed for several months. During this time, Degas produced several paintings, many depicting family members.
One of the paintings that Degas created during his time in New Orleans, A Cotton Office in New Orleans, was purchased by the Pau Museum in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of France. This was the only work by Degas that was purchased by a museum during his lifetime. In 1873, when Degas returned to Paris, his father died, and his brother had accumulated enormous business debts, so Degas was forced to sell the house and art collection that he had inherited, and he used that money to pay off his brother’s debts. This now meant that Degas was completely dependent on the sales of his artwork for income.
Degas became disenchanted with The Salon and instead joined up with a group of young artists who were organizing an independent exhibiting society, becoming one of its most important core members. This group became known as the Impressionists, and between 1874 and 1886 they held eight art exhibitions. Degas showed his work in all of them, except one, and he had a leading role in helping to organize the exhibitions. However, Degas disliked being associated with the term “Impressionist,” which the press had coined and popularized, and he insisted on using non-Impressionist artists’ work in the Impressionist exhibitions. This resulted in conflicts between the artists, and the group disbanded in 1886.
Although Degas referred to himself as a “Realist” or “Independent,” like the Impressionists he also sought to capture “fleeting moments in the flow of modern life.” However, he didn’t like painting landscapes outdoors like the Impressionists and instead preferred painting in theaters and cafes that were illuminated by artificial light. Degas was particularly intrigued by classical ballet, and the movement of female dancers, which are the subject of many of his paintings.
The sale of Degas’ artwork helped to improve his financial situation, and he was able to begin building up his art collection, acquiring the works of many old masters that he admired, such as Pissarro, Cézanne, Gauguin, and van Gogh. In the late 1880s, Degas developed a passion for creating with other media, such as photography and engraving. He photographed many friends and dancers, and some of the photos were used as a reference for his drawings and paintings.
Throughout his life, Degas worked with many different types of artistic tools. His drawings include examples in pen, ink, charcoal, chalk, and pastel, often in combination with one another, and his paintings were done in oils, watercolor, gouache, distemper, and metallic pigments on a wide variety of surfaces, such as silk, ceramic, tile, and wood panel, in addition to many varieties of canvas textures.
Degas did work in sculpture too, using wax and other materials to make modest statuettes of horses and dancers. In one of his sculptures at the Impressionist Exhibition of 1881, Degas incorporated an actual tutu, ballet slippers, a human-hair wig, and a silk ribbon to enhance visual realism.
As the years went by, Degas became progressively more and more isolated, perhaps due to his belief that “a painter could have no personal life.” After 1890, Degas’ eyesight, which had troubled him for much of his life, deteriorated further. He spent the last years of his life, nearly blind and depressed, although he continued working in pastel until the end of 1907, and is believed to have continued making sculptures as late as 1910. Degas stopped working in 1912 when the impending demolition of his longtime residence forced him to move to new quarters.
Degas died in 1917 at the age of 83. After Degas’s death, the enormous wealth of his output was revealed in a succession of public sales in Paris between 1918 and 1919. Thousands of his previously unexhibited works were sold. After his death, Degas’ reputation steadily grew, and his work began selling for high amounts, with prices ranging from $4,000,000 to $41,610,000. Degas’s work also began to enter major museums, and today can be viewed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, and the Getty Villa in Malibu, California.
Some of the quotes that Edgar Degas is known for include:
Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.
Muses work all day long, and then at night get together and dance.
A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, and some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people.
Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.
Art critic! Is that a profession? When I think we are stupid enough, we painters, to solicit those people’s compliments and to put ourselves into their hands! What shame! Should we even accept that they talk about our work?
Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.
I should like to be famous and unknown.