Edgar Degas French, 1834-1917

Biography

Edgar Degas was an active member and founder of the Impressionist movement. Much like Edouard Manet, Degas work focuses on capturing the energy and light of modern life in Paris at the end of the 19th century.

 

Degas was born in 1834 in Paris from a wealthy banking family. He attended the prestigious Lycée Louis-le-Grand and frequently visited Paris museums. Abandoning law school and the career path set for him by his father, Degas began to copy the Renaissance masters at the Louvre and later trained in the studio of Louis Lamothe a former student of Ingres, who taught in the traditional academic style, which places draftsmanship above all skills.

 

In the late 1850s, Degas made several trips to Italy, first visiting his father's family in Capodimonte, then Rome and Florence where he met French symbolist painter Gustave Moreau who became a close friend.

In 1865 the Salon accepted his history painting The Misfortunes of the City of Orléans (Musée d’Orsay, Paris). Degas began to paint scenes of modern life and developped some of his most recurring themes, such as horse races and the famous ballet dancers During his life, Degas will make about 1500 works about the ballet dancers, often visiting and drawing the repetitions of the "petits rats" at the newly inaugurated Opéra Garnier. In these works Degas develops a laguage of modernity that stands in his choices of composition and the poses he represents the dancers in. Like a testimony on the back-stage reality of the dancers, Degas shows the young girls adjusting their shoes, massaging their aching feet, taking breaks in hallways or getting ready to step on stage. Famous for their "photographic" figure cutting framings, his works capture the mouvement and instantaneity of the ballet.

 

From 1875 Degas began to use pastels frequently, even in finished works. By 1885, most of his more important works were done in pastel. He submitted a suite of nudes, all rendered in pastel, to the final Impressionist exhibition in 1886. The figures in these pastels were criticized for their unapealing vulgar poses.  The pastels show many  experiments with different techniques, Degas uses in the same composition effectects of hatching, dry pastel with wet, gouache and watercolors to soften the contours of his figures.

 

By the late 1880s, Degas’ eyesight had begun to fail, perhaps as a result of an injury suffered during his service in defending Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. After that time he focused almost exclusively on dancers and nudes, increasingly turning to sculpture as his eyesight weakened. In his later years, he was concerned chiefly with showing women bathing, entirely without self-consciousness and emphatically not posed.

 

In later life, Degas became reclusive and depressive probably as a consequence of his increasing blindness, and alienated all of his friends one after the other.

He kept painting and drawing until 1912, when he was forced to leave his studio in Montmartre. He died in 1917, at the age of eighty-three.