Edgar Degas (1834-1917) is sometimes said to be one of the Impressionists, and sometimes said to be one of the post-Impressionists. I’ve seen several books and textbooks say one or the other, and it seems to be a fairly even split. So let’s just say that Edgar Degas was a contemporary and friend of both the Impressionists and post-Impressionists.
Like the Impressionists, he liked his subjects to be casual, un-posed, and for the scene to look like a candid photo. He wanted to modernise art.
Unlike the Impressionists, he didn’t paint outside, he didn’t try to paint the fleeting moods of landscape and he always worked from his studio. He only ever painted a few landscapes, and only as an experiment. He created his artwork from a series of preliminary sketches and drawings.
Edgar Degas took part in all but one of the Impressionist exhibits.
His favourite subjects were ballet dancers, the horse racetrack and, later in life, women in everyday private moments of bathing, brushing hair, etc. Degas started out his painting career doing portraits of people he knew, but not for hire. His portraits always presented a quirk or insight into the personality of the subject. He is best known for his paintings of ballet dancers.
He was born in Paris as Edgar-Hilaire-Germain de Gas on July 19, 1834. He came from a wealthy family of bankers. As an adult, he changed his name to the less pretentious ‘Edgar Degas’. Degas was actually his family’s original name, but they had changed it to “de Gas” to sound more like French aristocracy.
His father made him study law at school, but afterwards, he took art lessons. He was taught in the traditional way of “academic art”. He also travelled to Italy quite a bit in his youth to study the masters.
Degas started out as a student of Louis Lamothe, who had studied under Ingres. Ingres and his neo-classical style were most powerful in Paris at the time (mid 1850s). But Delacroix’s romanticism was a rival and so was Courbet with his realism. The Ingristes were closest to the upper class world Degas was used to. As he got older, Degas eventually began to admire Delacroix more. (Delacroix was not an academic and he used colour instead of strong lines.)
Edgar Degas was drafted into the Franco Prussian war into artillery in 1870. He damaged his eyesight and it got increasingly worse the rest of his life.
After 1870, he did fewer portraits and more ‘pleasure painting’ of opera and dance. He was a regular at the Paris opera, and enjoyed painting the dancers on stage and in the rehearsal room.
He would often present his subjects off-centred, and with their backs to the viewer to give the composition a spontaneous, photographic effect.
Degas experimented with media: oil, pastels, distemper, prints, wax sculpture....but he most often used pastels. When he used pastels, he would dampen them first with steam, then rub them with his fingers to soften them, then scribble into built up layers. In his later years, he used tracing paper to transplant figures of his other works to new ones, sometimes reversing them.
Later in life, he rented a tall house on the Rue Victor-Masse in Montmartre. His preferred subjects as he aged were bathing women and nudes. He became fascinated with this subject and even had a tin bathtub and washbasins installed in his studio.
Degas was almost blind for the last 20 years of his life. He had a spot floating in front of his eyes constantly. On occasion, he would have a total blackout. Then one eye went blind completely, and the other was also bad. This is when he started sculpting more.
He continued to work into his 70s, but as he got older, his work lost detail and became bolder. By 1912, Degas had lost so much of his eyesight, he could no longer do his work, so , to fill his time, he took to walking the streets of Paris.
Edgar Degas died September 27th, 1917.
Degas experienced a moderate amount of fame in his lifetime. He did not like to sell his art; he hated art dealers and art critics. His father died with debts and his brother accumulated many as well, so Edgar finally started trying to sell paintings to cover their debts. Most of his fame and acclaim came after his death, when hundreds of his works were taken from his studio and sold at Paris auction.
Many of Degas' paintings can be seen at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.