Edgar Degas was a French artist who worked mainly with sculpture and painting and became one of the pivotal figures of the Impressionist movement. The artist became especially famous for his oil paintings and pastel drawings of ballerinas, producing a significant number of sculptures that dealt with the same subject. More than half of Degas' oeuvre is composed of dancers, usually depicted in groups and at private classes. Although closely associated with the Impressionists, Degas vehemently denied the term, rather being regarded as a Realist. Also, Degas did not paint en plein air, a common practice of his fellow painters.
Edgar Degas was born on July 1834, in Paris, as Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas. As an adult, he changed his name to the less fancy Degas. He was brought up into a middle-class family related to a minor aristocratic family and a business community in New Orleans, his mother's city of origin. His family was wealthy enough to send young Degas to the distinguished Lycee Louis-le-Grand in Paris.
Following his graduation from the Lycee in 1853, his father noticed Degas' artistic proficiency and encouraged his son by frequently taking him to museums throughout Paris. Soon, Degas began copying Italian Renaissance artworks in the Louvre Museum. Degas' father encouraged him to continue his artistic practice, not as a career, however. Following a period in law school, Degas gave up his father's aspiration in order to follow his path as an artist.
In 1855, he ingressed at the distinguished Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. There, the young artist studied drawing under Louis Lamothe, an academic artist and a former student of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Lamothe's teachings much emphasized the importance of draughtsmanship and the crucial role of lines on the compositions.
In 1856, Degas traveled to visit his aunt Baroness Bellelli and her family in Naples, Italy. This three-year trip proved to be a crucial moment in Degas' artistic development and enrichened his pictorial repertoire by spending much of his time in museums and galleries. He also studied Renaissance artworks by Raphael, Michelangelo, and Titian. This period culminated in his Realist portrait, The Bellelli Family.
In 1864, Degas, while copying a painting by Diego Velazquez, made acquaintances with Edouard Manet, who, by chance, was also copying the same artwork. The artists developed a friendly rivalry. Their close association and friendship would last until Manet's passing. Their company was also crucial for both their artistic development and probably for Impressionism as a whole.
In the following year, the artist exhibited for the first time at the Paris Salon with Scene of War in the Middle Ages. Although he participated in the show for the next five years, his oil on canvas Steeplechase - The Fallen Jockey signaled a departure from history painting in favor of more contemporary subjects. During this period, the artist exhibited artwork like The Orchestra of the Opera and Edouard Manet and Madame Manet. According to scholars, these paintings cunningly blurred the lines between genre paintings and straight-up portraiture.
The 1860s proved to be the most productive in Degas' career. However, his most famous production was made during the 1870s. It was by this time that the artist discovered his real muse, the city of Paris. Much like the Impressionist artists of the time, Degas drew inspiration from the scenes of Parisian life in locations such as cafes, boulevards, drawing rooms, operas, theatres, and dance studios.
The artist began to explore elements that were also present and developed in his mature production, such as how he distributed and awkwardly cropped the subjects in the composition and chose an unusual viewpoint that suggested the perspective of an inattentive viewer.
Between 1872 and 1873, the artist made a lengthy trip to New Orleans to visit his family, including his brother Rene. During this period, Degas produced many important artworks, such as A Cotton Office in New Orleans.
Following his return, the French Impressionists would hold their first group exhibition at the Cafe Guerbois, in which Degas participated. Although he shared many of their ideals and admired their artworks, Degas never entirely adhered to Impressionist aesthetics.
Degas was a versatile artist with an avid interest in many mediums. At some point, he became interested in lithography and monotype. Degas was especially captivated by the monotype's final result and would often finish them using pastels. By the late 1870s, the artist mastered not only oil painting but also the medium of pastels. In this method, the dry medium enabled Degas to execute complex layers of well-executed lines while also being able to explore his growing interest in vivid colors.
Soon, Degas was forced to sell much of his inheritance to pay off his brother's enormous debts. Now, with his income depending only on the sales of his paintings, Degas would create some of his most celebrated artworks. From 1870 onwards, one of Degas' main subjects was related to ballet, partly because they sold well, depicting the dancers backstage or in rehearsals. During this period, the artist also created pictures of Parisian cafes, such as Singer with a Glove and The Absinthe Drinker. By 1880, sculpture became one of Degas' preferred mediums.
As Degas' subject matter changed, so did his technique. The darker palette and more finely rendered lines gave way to livelier colors and bold brushstrokes. Also, in compositions such as Place de la Concorde, it is possible to notice the "snapshot" quality of Degas' artworks, freezing moments while also being able to impart a remarkable sense of movement, signaling the artist's passion for modern photography.
During his career, the meticulous execution of Degas' early production would give way to more freely painterly brushstrokes and an increasing dissolution of form. His later paintings share a limited pictorial resemblance to his later artworks.
Disillusioned with the Salon, Degas joined the group of young artists that would be later known as the Impressionists. The group began to organize independent art shows that took place between 1874 and 1886, known as the Impressionist Exhibitions.
Degas took a pivotal role in developing the exhibitions and participated in all but one of them. Since the artists didn't see eye-to-eye with the other members of the group, Degas insisted on including in the exhibition non-Impressionist artists, such as Jean-Francois Raffaelli and Jean-Louis Forain. The uprising tension between the members caused the group to disband in 1886.
He became well-known for his sharp observation, devoting much of his time capturing the details of his surroundings. Maybe, for this reason, Degas rejected the label of Impressionist, which he believed implied a more incomplete, accidental execution. Degas himself stated that his production was all but spontaneous, focusing instead on carefully observed and executed composition. Degas' art reflects a profound respect for the Old Masters, as well as Eugene Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. However, the artist is better described as an Impressionist than a member of any other group.
In paintings such as A Carriage at the Races, The Dance Foyer at the Opera on the rue Le Peletier, and Musicians in the Orchestra, the artist explored unconventional and creative points-of-view deprived of a predominant subject, suggesting a perspective of a distrait spectator.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, especially in the Impressionist movement, such as Renoir and Monet, Degas did not cultivate the practice of painting outdoors or en plein air. Instead, he preferred to execute his paintings under the steady light and reliability of a studio. In his few outdoor scenes, the artist often produced from memory or imbued it with elements from his imagination.
During the late 1880s, the artist developed a passion for photography. Degas used the medium to represent fellow artists such as Mallarme and Renoir, as well as depict nudes and dancers that would later be used as a reference for his paintings and drawings.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Degas' artistic output began to decline. Since his financial situation improved, Degas was able to develop his passion for art by collecting inspiring artworks. These artists included both contemporaries, such as Pissarro, Manet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Edouard Bradon, as well as Old Masters including Daumier, Ingres, Delacroix, and El Greco. He also collected Japanese prints, and its compositional principles influenced Degas' artworks.
Although later in his life, Degas abandoned oil painting, he continued to produce in a wide variety of media, including photography and pastels. However, as his eyesight deteriorated, sculpture became his favorite medium.
Edgar Degas died in his hometown on September 27, 1917. Although he was criticized during his career, Degas set himself as one of the most crucial French artists of the 19th century. Today, one of Degas's artworks for sale could achieve a value of over 13 million dollars.