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Follow the route to artistic stardom of this famous French painter in our detailed biography of the life and career of Edgar Degas.
Hilaire-Germaine-Edgar de Gas was born on the 19th July 1834, above the branch of the Neapolitan bank that his family owned in Rue Saint-Georges, Paris. Edgar was the oldest of five children and it was only when he reached his thirties that he began spell his surname, “Degas”, a name that would grace some of the most wonderful paintings of the era.
Edgar’s family were wealthy and well-connected. His father, a banker, encouraged his son’s interest in the arts and ensured that Edgar received a classical education at the Lycee Louis le Grand. Many of the family’s friends were art collectors. They often allowed young Edgar to study and copy the paintings in their possession. By the age of eighteen, Edgar Degas had gained permission to copy works of art in the Louvre and had converted one of the rooms in his home into a studio where he continued to develop his technique.
Although he was initially expected to go into law, Degas was encouraged to develop his artistic talents and his privileged background enabled him to travel around France and Italy, often staying with family members. He used this time to visit monuments, cathedrals and to view famous works of art. In Italy he studied and copied aspects from artists such as Michelangelo and da Vinci, developing his skills and honing his technique. Degas was a skilled draughtsman, he would often pick out an aspect from a painting or a figure and create a portrait from it. His style at this time was quite different from the art we now associate with Degas, his main subject matter being history painting.
In 1855 Degas met the artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Ingres was to have a major influence in Degas’ development and is reported to have given young Degas the following advice:
“Draw lines, young man, draw lines.”
By 1856 Degas had gained a place at Ecole de Beaux Arts but he continued to supplement his formal training with his trips to Italy. In 1858, he made some studies of his aunt and her family. He finally completing this well-known artwork “The Bellelli Family” or “Family Portrait” in 1867. In 1861 he travelled to Normandy with a childhood friend and it was here that he made studies of horses.
Back in Paris, Degas continued to study from the Old Masters and he was reportedly copying Velazquez Infanta Margarita onto a copper plate at the Louvre in 1862 when he was interrupted by fellow artist Edouard Manet. Degas was two years younger than Manet, they became friends and rivals.
Degas first exhibited his work at the Salon in 1865 and annually for five years thereafter but he felt that his history paintings such as the “Scene of War in the Middle Ages” were being overlooked. Gradually he found himself moving away from history paintings and chose to depict more contemporary matter like Manet. His work “Steeplechase – The Fallen Jockey” in 1866, signified a change in direction.
In 1870 Degas enlisted in the National Guard. These were turbulent times in France as Paris was attacked by Prussian forces. After the war he stayed with relatives in New Orleans for a time and his American painting “A Cotton Office in New Orleans”, 1873, became the only work that was purchased by a museum in his own lifetime. It was around this time, at the age of 36, that Degas began to experience eye problems which plagued his artistic career. He initially blamed exposure to the bright light of New Orleans and the cold exposure from his period of guard duty. However, it seems likely that he had some form of retinopathy. There is no doubt the progressive deterioration in eyesight caused the artist great distress. There was no cure for his eye problems at that time and though he sought advice from numerous ophthalmologists, he learned to work in a controlled environment and wore glasses to cut out the light. As his eyesight deteriorated further, he compensated by using different techniques and media. He was known to ask models to help him distinguish between colours. Overtime his original choices of dark colours had changed, he was now using bright, expressive colours and bold brush strokes.
During the 1870s Degas, like Manet, had begun to paint modern Paris, focusing upon the people, their roles and their leisure activities, often in a state of movement. He had little interest in landscape and certainly never painted “en plein air”. If he painted landscapes, it was done within the confines of his carefully controlled studio environment, from memory or his imagination. What began to set Degas’ work apart was the type of scenes he painted, his unusual viewpoint and use of light. He often painted bodies caught in different postures or a movement. His “behind the scenes” images offered intimate views of the subject matter. He would focus upon people’s physiology, their clothes and professions, his ballerina’s athletic, graceful bodies contrasting sharply with the heavy set bodies of the laundry women that he also painted. He painted people from all walks of life in “modern” Paris, in a variety of settings.
After growing disillusioned with exhibiting at the Salon, Degas gravitated towards a group of avant-garde artists, including Manet. They would often meet at Cafe Guerbois on Sundays and Thursdays to discuss the art world and make plans for the future. From 1874 to 1886 they organized eight independent exhibitions which became known at the “Impressionist Exhibitions”. The term “Impressionists” had been coined by an art critic but the name stuck. The first exhibition took place at 35 Boulevard des Capucines, the studios of Felix Nadir, a French photographer. The exhibition opened on 15th April and was to last one month. Artists included Cezanne, Renoir and Sisley. Degas showed ten pieces including dancers and racing scenes. Although the first exhibition was not a total success in terms of sales, a new style of art had been exposed to the public. At the time is seemed quite shocking and was very different to the more formal scenes and style of art that currently existed. To many, including the critics, this new art style appeared like blotches of colours which only created shapes when viewed at a certain distance. Degas thought that more mainstream artists should be included in the exhibition and this, along with Degas personal conflicts and other disagreements within the group, eventually saw them disband. Degas exhibited work in all but one exhibition but he always detested the term “Impressionist” and the scandal it created. He saw himself as independent and a realist, often urging other painters to paint “real life”.
During the 1870s he made numerous studies of ballerinas. He found that these images were popular and sold well. Following his father’s death in 1874, he worked hard exhibiting and selling his work to pay of the family debts. Degas’ numerous notebooks detail how he would arrange access to ballet rehearsals and make sketches from performances. He would make numerous notes revealing the thought-processes for his work, noting details about their body shape or clothing. Over half of Degas’ work involved dance scenes, around 1500 ballet dances. At the time, ballet dancers were known as “les petit rats” and the art form was a lowly one. Rather than the romantic vision of the ballet and costumes, Degas preferred to capture the painful, hard work of the dancers or “his little monkey girls” as he chose to call them. During this period he also made numerous etchings and experimented with lithograph and monograph.
Degas’ skill as a draughtsman was appreciated but some of his works divided the art critics. The nudes that he exhibited in 1886 created a stir but his most controversial piece was probably his sculpture of a Little Dancer Aged Fourteen exhibited in 1881. Many of the audience found it shocking, describing it as ugly. Yet, Degas had captured the reality of Parisian life in the ballet for a young “rat”.
As his own wealth increased, Degas was able to collect many of the works he admired including pieces by El Greco, Monet, Picasso, Cezanne, Gauguin. He particularly admired Ingres, Delacroix and Daumier and acquired some of their work too. Degas also collected Japanese prints which may have influenced the way Degas composed his pictures with his unusual points of view and cropping of his subjects.
As his eyesight deteriorated, Degas began to experiment more with other media. He moved away from oil on canvas and started using pastels, using layers of textures, working quickly on paper. Just as his subject matter had changed, so did his techiques. His pictures of women, often combing their hair or drying themselves became more simplified, the backgrounds more abstracted.
During the 1880s Degas became interested in photography, often photographing family and friends after dinner, even himself by lamplight. His photographs, were carefully composed, just like his paintings.
During the Dreyfus Affair, a political scandal during the 1890s which involving a Jewish artillery officer wrongfully accused of Treason, Degas’ anti-Semitic leanings and staunch conservative attitude became clearer. He severed ties with his Jewish friends and as he had never married, became more and more reclusive. His deteriorating eyesight also made him prone to bouts of depression. However, as an artist, Degas believed that an artist had to “live apart”. He was argumentative by nature and could be difficult, but he was loyal to his friends and very witty.
In his later years, Degas experimented more and more with sculpture. He made his last sculpture in 1912 when he was forced to leave his studio which was due to be demolished.
Edgar Degas died, aged 83, on 27th September 1917. He was a part of the wonderful era in French history, known as “la Belle Epoch”. While his paintings may have divided the critics of his day, Edgar Degas’ wonderful works of art inspired many and captured that incredible era, bringing his Parisian scenes to life forever.