Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
AKA: Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas
Born: July 19, 1834; Paris
Died: September 27, 1917; Paris
Biography of Edgar Degas
Edgar Degas was born in Paris of a wealthy family. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts under a pupil of Ingres, whom he knew and deeply admired.
His early works, family portraits and some history pictures suggest that he was to develop into an academic painter in the Ingres tradition.
By the late 1860s, however, he had begun to develop a deceptively casual composition, probably influenced by Manet and possibly also by Whistler, and certainly by snapshot photography.
He knew Manet well, as he did Bazille, Berthe Morisot, and Tissot, and was a frequent member of the circle which gathered round Manet, where he also met Fantin Latour, Renoir, Constantin Guys, Cézanne, Monet, Sisley, and Pissarro.
During the Franco-Prussian War, he remained in Paris and in 1872-73, he visited relations in New Orleans. Here he painted only a few works but these and those executed after his return to Paris show him using unusual viewpoints and purely contemporary subject matter. He ceased exhibiting at the Salon in 1870, and in 1874 he took part in the first Impressionist Exhibition, as he did in six of the subsequent seven. His works could only be seen in public at these group exhibitions (always received with hostility and ridicule) and at the dealer, Durand-Ruel, whose patient and persevering faith in Impressionism nearly ruined him. Unlike Monet, and some others in the group, Degas had a private income, which made him independent of sales of his work, and he was less than understanding over their defections from the group exhibitions (which he largely organized) in order to send works to the Salon in an endeavor to attract purchasers.
His first pictures of dancers were painted about 1873, and from then on ballet girls, working girls, models dressing and bathing, and cabaret artists became his principal subject matter. He recorded the manners and movements of a society which he observed almost as if it were another world and these figures were treated as the material of his investigations into light, color, and form as much as the pastel or paint he used.
Technically, he was one of the greatest experimenters and innovators. His sound knowledge of the traditional technique of oil-painting enabled him to make endless trials of various media and mixtures such as oil-paint thinned with turpentine after the oil has been partly extracted with blotting paper (peinture à l’essence), pastel used in superimposed layers, or with watercolor or spirit-thinned oil-paint, or thinned with water, gouache, egg tempera, etching, dry-point, monotype, lithography, aquatint, and drawing in every material. In later life, he used pastel more than any other medium, and as his eyesight weakened his handling became broader and freer.
There are 74 pieces of sculpture – late works – including ballet dancers and figures in movement, originally executed in wax, but now generally cast in bronze. The most unusual is the large figure of the little ballet girl wearing a real net tutu (London, Tate).