Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas

1834 – 1917

Hilaire Germain Edgar deGas (it was only later that he started to sign his works Degas) was born in Paris.  He was the eldest of three boys and two girls born to a prosperous banker from a Neapolitan family and his Créole wife from New Orleans. He was actually named after his grandfathers – Hilaire deGas, a banker from Naples, and Germain Musson, a New Orleans merchant – two men of powerful personalities who were to have much influence on him as a child. However his mother was to die when he was only 13 years old.

His innovative composition, skillful drawing, and perceptive analysis of movement made him one of the Masters of Modern Art of the late 19th century.

As a member of an upper-class family, Edgar Degas was originally intended to practice law, which he studied for a time after finishing secondary school. In 1855, however, he enrolled in the famous École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he studied under Louis Lamothe, a pupil of the classical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Here he developed the superb drawing ability that was to be his “moment défini”.

In order to supplement his art studies, Degas traveled extensively, including trips to Naples, Florence, and Rome (where he lived for three years), in order to observe and copy the works of such Renaissance masters as Sandro Botticelli, Andrea Mantegna, and Nicolas Poussin.

In 1861, Edgar Degas returned to Paris, where he executed several “history paintings”, or works with historical or biblical themes, which were the most sought after paintings by serious art patrons and in the prestigious Salon held once a year in Paris.  He also began copying Old Masters in the Louvre which he would continue to do for many years.  With his historical paintings and his finely wrought portraits of family members, friends and clients, the young Degas quickly established a reputation among French art circles and never suffered from the financial problems that plagued many of his contemporaries.

Soon, Degas began to shift his focus from historical painting to contemporary life in Paris. By 1862, he began painting various scenes from the racecourse, including studies of the horses, and the fashionable spectators. Degas’ style after the early 1860s was influenced by the budding Impressionist movement, his friendship with Édouard Manet, and his introduction to Japanese graphic art, with its striking representation of figures. Along with his work painting scenes from the racetrack, Degas began concentrating on portraits of groups, most notably of female ballet dancers, who were to become his hallmark. 1861, Degas returned to Paris, where he executed several “history paintings,” or works with historical or Biblical themes, which were then the most sought-after paintings by serious art patrons and an incident from

Edgar Degas is usually considered an Impressionist. He helped to organize the first of the exhibitions that became labeled, Impressionist Exhibitions. The Impressionists subsequently held seven additional shows, the last in 1886, and Degas showed his work in all but one.

By 1870 when  Findlay Galleries were founded in Kansas City, Degas joined the artillery division of the French National Guard during the Franco-Prussian War. Upon his return, he worked on even more ambitious studies of groups, often in motion, in both indoor and outdoor settings and in 1872 with his younger brother René, he traveled to New York and New Orleans, where his uncle, his mother’s brother, Michel Musson, ran a cotton business. Degas stayed in Louisiana for five months and returned to Paris in February 1873.  In America he created a number of works.  Courtyard of a House in New Orleans, (1872) shows part of the Musson’s home on Esplanade Avenue and possibly the room that served Degas as his studio during his stay. From this experience came his famous painting Portrait in a New Orleans Cotton Office (1873).

The journey to New Orleans marked a key moment in Degas’s career. Distracted and stalled in his profession on his arrival, he left the city with a new sense of direction and resolve. He also took with him, in his portfolio and his mind, several unforgettable images of New Orleans.

Edgar Degas began a hobby as a photographer, using it both for pleasure, and, in order to accurately capture action for his paintings and artwork. Many of Degas’ paintings featured experiments with unorthodox visual angles and asymmetrical perspectives, somewhat like a photographer’s treatment.  An example of this style is Ballet Rehearsal (1876), a group portrait of ballerinas that appears almost cropped at the edges. From 1873 to 1883, Degas produced many of his most famous works, both paintings and pastels, of his favorite subjects, the ballet, the racecourse, the music hall, and café society.

Though he never suffered from lack of money or interest in his work, Degas stopped exhibiting at the Salon in 1874, and thereafter displayed most of his works alongside those of the other Impressionists, including Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro. His strong focus on draftsmanship, portraiture, and composition distanced him from the rest of the artists identified as Impressionists.

Sometime in the 1870s, Degas increasingly began to work as a sculptor, producing bronze statues of horses and ballet dancers, among other subjects. A number of his sculptures, including Little Dancer of Fourteen Years (1880-81), were figures dressed in real costumes, and many of them captured the moment of transition between one position to another, giving the statues a real sense of immediacy and motion.

As Edgar Degas’ eyesight grew worse, he became an increasingly reclusive and eccentric figure. In the last years of his life, he was almost totally blind. Edgar Degas died on September 27, 1917, in Paris, leaving behind in his studio an important collection of drawings and paintings by his contemporaries as well as a number of statues crafted in wax and metal, which were cast in bronze after his death.

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