Degas was a French artist famous for his work in painting, sculpture,
printmaking and drawing. Edgar Degas is regarded as one of the founders
Impressionism although he rejected the
term, and preferred to be called a
Realist. A superb draughtsman, Edgar Degas is
especially identified with the subject of the dance, and over half his
works depict dancers. These display his mastery in the depiction of
movement, as do his racecourse subjects and female nudes. Edgar Degas's
portraits are considered to be among the finest in the history of art.
Early in his career, Edgar Degas' ambition was to be a history painter,
a calling for which he was well prepared by his rigorous academic
training and close study of classic art. In his early thirties he
changed course, and by bringing the traditional methods of a history
painter to bear on contemporary subject matter, Edgar Degas became a
classical painter of modern life.
Hilaire Germain Edgar de Gas (it was only later that he started to sign his works 'Degas') was born in Paris, the eldest of three boys and two girls born to a prosperous banker from a Neapolitan family and his Creole wife from New Orleans. He was actually named after his grandfathers, Hilaire Degas,(his portrait by Degas is shown here) a banker from Naples, and Germain Musson, a New Orleans merchant. These were two men of powerful personalities who were to have much influence on Edgar Degas as a child. Sadly his mother died when he was only 13 years old. Knowledgeable about art but conservative in his preferences, Degas's father helped to develop his son's interest in painting. In 1855 Edgar Degas enrolled at the famous École des Beaux-Arts, or School of Fine Arts, in Paris, where he studied under Louis Lamothe, a pupil of the classical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Surviving works from this period show Degas's aptitude for drawing and his attention to the historical precedents Edgar Degas viewed in the Louvre. Edgar Degas also began his first solemn explorations of the self-portrait.
In 1856 Edgar Degas surprisingly abandoned his studies in Paris, using his father's funds to embark on a three-year period of travel and study in Italy, where he immersed himself in the painting and sculpture of antiquity, the Trecento, and the Renaissance. Staying first with relatives in Naples, Edgar Degas later worked in Rome and Florence, filling notebooks with sketches of faces, historic buildings, and the landscape, and with hundreds of rapid pencil copies from frescoes and oil paintings he admired. Among these were copies after Giotto, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Titian, artists who were to echo through his compositions for decades.
Returning to Paris in 1859, Edgar Degas set up studio in the rue Laval, in the quarter where he was born, and commenced painting several ambitious historical canvases of which "Sémiramis Construisant Babylone" (Semiramis Building Babylon) was particularly well received. Degas was a great opera enthusiast and this work was inspired by Rossini's Semiramide which was being staged at the time in Paris. Degas attempted to take a fresh look at historical painting which he considered to have been suffocated and stereotyped by the Salon favorites. This ambition distanced Edgar Degas from most of his contemporaries who were more modernist and aligned him with Puvis de Chavannes and Moreau who were considered by many to be eccentric and reactionary. Semiramis was a queen of ancient Syria celebrated for both her beauty and cruelty. Moreau was particularly fascinated by stories of femmes fatales and he might well have encouraged Degas in the choice of this theme. The background of the scene certainly has the style of Moreau whilst the panoramic concept evokes the great murals of Puvis de Chavannes.
In 1865 Edgar Degas' more simply executed painting "Scene of War in the Middle Ages" was accepted by the Salon jury, but it remained almost unnoticed in the thronged exhibition halls. The following year his dramatic painting "The Steeplechase" (shown here) was again met with indifference, despite its startlingly close-up view of a contemporary horse race that seems, in retrospect, like the public announcement of a transformation in his art.
Degas's transition to modern subject matter, evident in "The Steeplechase", was a long and gradual one, not an overnight conversion. Before Edgar Degas left Italy, he had made drawings of street characters and paintings of fashionable horse-riders, but always on a small scale. In Paris in the early 1860s, his pictures of French racing events broke new ground both for their decidedly contemporary subject matter and for their surprising viewpoints and bold colors, which preceded the canvases of similar scenes by his renowned contemporary Édouard Manet.
When Edgar Degas met loped an affectionate but pointed rivalry with the slightly older man and soon shared something of Manet's oppositional stance toward the artistic establishment and its traditional subject matter. At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Edgar Degasenlisted in the National Guard, where his defense of Paris left him little time for painting. During rifle training his eyesight was found to be defective, and for the rest of his life his eye problems were a constant worry to him. After the war, in 1872, Edgar Degas began an extended stay in New Orleans, Louisiana, where his brother René and a number of other relatives lived.
Staying in a house on Esplanade Avenue, Edgar Degas produced a number of works, many depicting family members. One of Degas' New Orleans works, depicting a scene at The Cotton Exchange at New Orleans, garnered favorable attention back in France, and was his only work purchased by a museum during his lifetime. Degas returned to Paris in 1873. By now thoroughly disenchanted with the Salon, in 1874 Edgar Degas joined forces with a group of young artists who were intent upon organizing an independent exhibiting society. The result was the first of the exhibitions that became labeled Impressionist Exhibitions. The Impressionists subsequently held seven additional shows, the last in 1886. Edgar Degas showed his work in all but one, even though he was, in the words of art historian Andrew Forge, "continually at odds with the landscape painters". Edgar Degas deplored the scandal that surrounded the exhibitions and the publicity and advertisement that his colleagues quite naturally looked for. Edgar Degas objected violently to the label Impressionist that the press had hung on them.
While Edgar Degas is known to have been working in pastel as late as the end of 1907, and is believed to have continued making sculpture as late as 1910, Edgar Degas apparently ceased working in 1912, when the impending demolition of his longtime residence on the rue Victor Massé forced a wrenching move to quarters on the boulevard de Clichy. Edgar Degas never married and spent the last years of his life, nearly blind, restlessly wandering the streets of Paris before dying in 1917. Degas's last years were sad and lonely ones, especially as Edgar Degas outlived many of his closest friends.