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Edgar Degas was the eldest of five siblings, born to a wealthy Parisian family in July of 1834 and was originally named Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas. The artist would eventually change his grandiose last name to simply Degas, as he found it to be less pretentious. He became famous for his breathtaking drawings, paintings, prints, and sculptures – although he exhibited only one sculpture to the public during his lifetime.
The French artist began his career as a Classic Academic artist, working with mostly historic paintings. The young man turned a room of his house into an art studio and would spend hours in the Louvre Museum copying the masterpieces of past masters at 18 years old. Although his father encouraged Degas’ involvement with the arts, he did not consider it as a career and, consequently, he began to study law at the University of Paris. The young man didn’t make much effort, as the faculty bored him immensely.
One of Degas’ first greatest inspirations was the Neo-Classical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who he met in 1855 and gave him great incitement to continue drawing to one day become a great artist. During this period, Degas enrolled in the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts where he studied under Louis Lamothe and followed the footsteps of Ingres. The next year, the painter moved to Italy to study the art of the Renaissance masters in depth. Degas lived there for the next three years, copying paintings by Raphael, Titian, Michelangelo, among others – but his unique twist. Instead of copying the whole artwork, Degas would choose a secondary detail or character to portray in his work.
The Bellelli Family (1858-1867) is considered his first masterpiece by the Academic standards. In 1865, Degas had his first artwork shown in the Paris Salon, entitled Scene of War in the Middle Ages, but because of its little success, the artist decided not to exhibit any more historic paintings during the next five years in which he participated. By the late 1860s, he changed his traditional themes to a more modern display of his interpretation of ordinary scenes of contemporary life. Degas began to paint racehorses with a more modern view, as well as female nudes and women at work.
Ultimately, the artist became famous worldwide for his portrayals of dancers, as in his painting Mademoiselle Fiocre in the Ballet ‘La Source’ (1868). Although he had a Classic background, Degas was swept away with modern themes and unconventional compositions, inspired by the Japanese woodblocks. He had much in common with the Impressionists, although he ridiculed them for working en plein air – meaning outdoors. Degas changed his dark, Dutch-influenced color pallet, to brighter and more vibrant colors. He also enjoyed photography, which can explain the way he depicted the dancers in rehearsals and backstage, that look like quick snapshots of a picture. The French painter also portrayed the underground scenes of the Paris cafés, like in the paintings In a Cafe.
One of the main influences on Degas’ change in direction was Edouard Manet, who he met in 1864 in the Louvre Museum while observing a Velazquez painting. By mid-1870s, he directed his attention to less traditional media, like lithography, monotype prints, and soft pastels. His disenchantment with the Paris Salon led him to join a group of young modern artist in independent exhibitions. Degas passed away at the age of 83, in July 1834, Paris.