The Art of Edgar Degas

Edgar_Degas_(1834-1917) Edgar Degas was a French painter, draughtsman, graphic artist and sculptor whose innovative composition, skillful drawing, and perspective analysis of movement made him one of the masters of modern art in the late 19th century. Degas is usually classed with the Impressionists, and he exhibited with them in 7 of the 8 Impressionist exhibitions. However, his training in classical drawing and his dislike of painting directly from nature produced a style that represented a related alternative to Impressionism. Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was the son of a rich banker and Creole mother. Born to this well-to-do family in Paris on July 19th, 1834, he had a typical bourgeois education and then studied law. The family name was originally de Gas but Degas adopted the less pretentious form. In 1854 he abandoned the study of law and began training, in the Ecole de Beaux Arts, under Louis Lamothe, a pupil of Ingres. Degas subsequently met Ingres and was encouraged to ‘draw lines’. He then proceeded to develop as a superb classical draughtsman. He combined drawing with his strength as a colourist and then united these two conflicting French traditions, as shown by Poussin and Rubens, Ingres and Delacroix in the 17th and 19th centuries respectively. Degas’s drawing ability was to be a salient characteristic of his art. He enrolled in the Ecole in 1855 and went subsequently to Naples and Rome. In 1861 Degas  was back in Paris where he painted portraits and compositions in a severely classical style, but later turned to panting dancers, the races, town life, and portraits in the environment. This established his reputation. The period spent in Italy between 1854 and 1859 gave him a real artistic education coupled with assiduous study of the Old Masters. Most of his early works were portraits and history paintings on classical themes, for example The Young Spartans, now in the National Gallery, London see Figure 1. degas-young-spartans-exercising-NG3860-fm

Figure 1.  The Young Spartans (1861).

Also in 1861 Degas met Manet while copying a Velasquez in The Louvre. Manet introduced him to the young Impressionist circle.

During the next few years he abandoned historical pictures and turned to contemporary subjects, with a special predilection for racing scenes, ballet, theatre, circuses, rehearsals, café scenes and laundresses, see Figure 2. It seems he was influenced towards this change of direction largely by Manet and Edmund Duranty. Thus, after 1865, under the women ironing

Figure 2. Laundresses (1884-1886).

influence of the budding impressionist movement, he have up academic subjects to turn contemporary themes. However, unlike the Impressionists, he preferred to work in the studio and was uninterested in the study of natural light that fascinated them. Nonetheless, even though he was not in agreement with Impressionist theory, he was allied with them from the very beginning – partly in protest against sterile academic theory and practice. Degas, exhibited in 7 of the 8 Impressionist exhibitions and was regarded as one of the prominent members. He was then only an Impressionist in certain areas and restricted aspects of his work. Like Manet, who also came from an upper-middle class background, he stood apart from the rest of the group.

Degas had little interest in landscape and thus did not share the Impressionist concern for rendering the effects of changing light and atmosphere. Degas was a keen observer of humanity – particularly of women, with whom his work is preoccupied – and in his portraits as well as in his studies of milliners, dancers and laundresses, he cultivated a complete objectivity, attempting to catch his subjects in poses as natural and spontaneous as those recorded in action photographs. Degas remained more interested in draughtsmanship because the group he alone had an academic background. Nonetheless, as with other Impressionists, he liked to give the suggestion of accidental, spontaneous and unplanned scenes. His pictures often cut off figures in a manner of a badly executed snapshot, or as unfamiliar viewpoints. In Woman with the Chrysanthemums (1865), see Figure 3, now


Figure 3Woman with the Chrysanthemums (1865).

in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, the female subject of the picture is pushed into a corner of the canvas by the large central bouquet of flowers. His compositions appear cropped at the edges, as in Ballet Rehearsal (1876), now in Glasgow, see Figure 4. It was his study of Japanese prints that led him to experiment with unusual visual angles and asymmetrical compositions.


Figure 4Ballet Rehearsal (1876).

Like the Impressionists Degas was influenced by Japanese prints an photography and also in conveying the impression of movement. He did not paint outdoors or directly from nature. For Degas’ work the appearance of spontaneity and accidental effects were carefully composed. Thus he said “Even when working from nature, one has to compose” as well as “No art was ever less spontaneous than mine.” For Degas art always had a strong intellectual basis, and he also once said “What I do is the result of reflection and study…of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament, I know nothing.” Thus he worked indoors from memory.

One of his most puzzling pictures is the one called Le Viol (1868-1869), or The Rape, see Figure 5. It appears to be an example of an increasing commitment to realism. The picture


Figure 5Le Viol or The Rape (1868-1869).

is noted for its theatricality and almost stage managed lamp-lighted confrontation between a man and a partially undressed woman. There have ben many art historian interpretations including one that says it is a scene  from Therese Raquin by Emil Zola. On canvas Degas used a number of grounds and experimented with raw canvas. Unlike Monet and Renoir his paint film was built up in distinct and fairly regular layers. He also used a technique of peinture a l’essence where the pigment with the oil removed is thinned with turpentine for rapid drying.

In the 1880’s, when his eyesight began to fail, Degas began increasingly to work in two new media that did not require intense visual acuity – sculpture and pastel. In his sculpture, as in his paintings, he attempted to catch the action of the moment, and his ballet dancers and female nudes, see Figure 6,  are of the moment, and his ballet dancers and female nudes are depicted in poses that make no attempt to conceal the physical exertions of their subjects, see Figure 7. He thus modelled in clay and wax in order to understand more


Figure 6. La Toilette or Woman Combing her Hair. (1884-1886).

his dancers and racehorses. These studies were never intended for exhibition and were only cast in bronze after his death. He exhibited only one sculpture, that called the


Figure 7. Three Ballet Dancers (1879).

Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer (1881), see Figure 8, dressed in a real tutu and again cast in bronze after his death. During the 1890’s his failing eyesight worsened and he concentrated on models of women at their toilet and nude dancers etc.


Figure 8Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer (1881).

The life of Degas was also marred by hypochondria and with his failing eyesight and advancing age he shunned all of society. Thus in the last twenty years of his life his virtual blindness caused him to live a reclusive life. His formidable personality and complete devotion to his art made him seem cold and aloof. Nonetheless his genius compelled universal respect among other artists. Renoir ranked him above Rodin as a sculptor, and in 1883 Pissarro wrote that he was “…certainly the greatest artist of our epoch…”. Degas was the first of the Impressionist group to achieve recognition as one of the giants of 19th century art.

Degas’s pastels are usually simple compositions containing only a few figures. He was obliged to depend on vibrant colours and meaningful gestures rather than on precise lines and careful detailing. In spite of such limitations, these works are eloquent and expressive and have a simple grandeur that is unsurpassed b any of his other works, see Figure 9.


Figure 10The Tub . Pastel on card.

As his preference for pastel increased his colours grew stronger and compositions more simplified. As a restless experimenter he often mixed tempera with pastel. Degas also experimented with graphic media, made monotypes and etchings, and perfected the art of pastel. For Degas pastels gave him an ideal combination of colour and line which he built up into a web of crossed striations. He steamed the pastel surface in order to dissolve the pigment into films of colour he then worked as a paste with a stiff brush.

Degas was an incisive designer, prodigiously accurate, and indebted to Ingres and Holbein. Called the painter of ballet dancers he was in fact no more a specialist of them than of modistes or jockeys, see Figure 11.


Figure 11.  The Rehearsal (1879).

What attracted him, either successfully or simultaneously, to these subjects was the desire to grasp in an extraordinary way, the precise and expressive stoke gestures and movements. Degas believed that until then this had been ignored by the eyes of painters. Therefore Degas loved the disciplined movement of ballet dancers and horses. During 10 to 15 years he used the same discipline to make himself a portrait painter, see Figure 12.


Figure 12Portrait of Hortense Valpincon (1871).

Degas conveyed an impression of truth which he secured by a drawing with a closed form. He also used unusual composition. He discovered and appropriated the new environment of 19th century industrial man. He included the townscape, the street, interiors of places of entertainment and work of all social classes. He observed the behaviour of males and females against these settings with analytical detachment, see Figure 13. He also employed an unfailing eye and biting wit for the typical. For this purpose he made


Figure 13The Absinthe Drinker (1876).

made use of photography, the store of knowledge in museums, as well as a craftsman’s knowledge. Degas found entirely new types of composition derived from his research, and his inventions in this field were bold and original. This had capital consequences for modern painting.

Degas did not share the Impressionists love of light and colour, and disdained the open air – a trait contrary to convictions of orthodox Impressionists. He did share with Impressionism an intention to convey a momentary sense or scene. Degas thus caught the essence of action itself. Thus he never painted on the spot. He composed only after much observation, many studies, and a most intimate knowledge of the subject. He relied also on prodigious memory. The vision of eternal truth in fleeting reality was the characteristic contribution of Degas.

In the work of Degas there is a gradual development from early classical compositions such as The Young Spartans (1860), with its cool colours, to the new science of colour and movement, for example his Washerwomen (1879) and the Miss Lola series of ballet dancers, drawings, paintings and pastels, of women at their toilette, washing themselves and dressing. Between 1890 and 1895 he produced Apres le bain, Femme s’Essayant or After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself, see Figure 14. This is a pastel on cardboard with a


Figure 14. After the Bath (1890-95).

squared format with the figure cramped in the pictorial space and is typical of his work and style. Degas was not well known to the public, and his true artistic stature did not become evident until after his death. Degas died in Paris on September 27th, 1917.


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