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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Edgar Degas (1834–1917): Painting and Drawing

Edgar Degas seems never to have reconciled himself to the label of “Impressionist,” preferring to call himself a “Realist” or “Independent.” Nevertheless, he was one of the group’s founders, an organizer of its exhibitions, and one of its most important core members. Like the Impressionists, he sought to capture fleeting moments in the flow of modern life, yet he showed little interest in painting plein-air landscapes, favoring scenes in theaters and cafés illuminated by artificial light, which he used to clarify the contours of his figures, adhering to his academic training.

Degas was born in 1834, the scion of a wealthy banking family, and was educated in the classics, including Latin, Greek, and ancient history, at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. His father recognized his son’s artistic gifts early and encouraged his efforts at drawing by taking him frequently to Paris museums. Degas began by copying Italian Renaissance paintings at the Louvre and trained in the studio of Louis Lamothe, who taught in the traditional academic style, with its emphasis on line and its insistence on the crucial importance of draftsmanship. Degas was also strongly influenced by the paintings and frescoes he saw during several long trips to Italy in the late 1850s; he made many sketches and drawings of them in his notebooks.

Evidence of Degas’ classical education can be seen in his relatively static, friezelike early painting, Young Spartans Exercising (ca. 1860; National Gallery, London), done while he was still in his twenties. Yet despite the title, and the suggestion of classical drapery on some of the figures in the background, there is little that places the subject of this painting in ancient Greece. Indeed, it has been noted that the young girls have the snub noses and immature bodies of “Montmartre types,” the forerunners of the dancers Degas painted so often throughout his career. After 1865, when the Salon accepted his history painting The Misfortunes of the City of Orléans (Musée d’Orsay, Paris), Degas did not paint academic subjects again, focusing his attention on scenes of modern life. He began to paint scenes of such urban leisure activities as horse racing and, after about 1870, of café-concert singers and ballet dancers.

Degas’s choice of subject matter reflects his modern approach. He favored scenes of ballet dancers, laundresses, milliners (At the Milliner’s, 1882; 29.100.38), and denizens of Parisian low life. His interest in ballet dancers intensified in the 1870s, and eventually he produced approximately 1,500 works on the subject. These are not traditional portraits, but studies that address the movement of the human body, exploring the physicality and discipline of the dancers through the use of contorted postures and unexpected vantage points. In Dancer Adjusting Her Slipper (1873; 29.100.941), the figure’s pose is difficult to decipher, viewed from a steep angle with both her feet and her head at the bottom of the picture, yet it conveys a sense of the dancer’s flexibility.

Degas absorbed artistic tradition and outside influences and reinterpreted them in innovative ways. Following the opening of trade with Japan in 1854, many French artists, including Degas, were increasingly influenced by Japanese prints. But whereas his contemporaries often infused their paintings with Eastern imagery, Degas abstracted from these prints their inventive compositions and points of view, particularly in his use of cropping and asymmetry. Degas had also observed how sixteenth-century Italian Mannerists similarly framed their subjects, sometimes cutting off part of a figure. For example, in A Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers (1865; 29.100.128), the figure is cut off at the right edge of the painting, with part of her left hand just barely visible at the lower right corner. In her subdued attire she seems almost incidental to the riot of color that makes up the central floral arrangement. Unusual vantage points and asymmetrical framing are a consistent theme throughout Degas’ works, especially in his many paintings and pastels of ballet dancers, from the time of Dancers Practicing at the Barre (1877; 29.100.34), through the decades to Dancers, Pink and Green (ca. 1890; 29.100.42) and beyond. Even in a more traditional work of portraiture like the Duchessa di Montejasi with Her Daughters, Elena and Camilla (ca. 1876; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), he achieves a more modern effect by disrupting the compositional balance.

Degas had a lively, scientific interest in a wide range of media, including engraving, monotype, and photography. Before 1880, he generally used oils for his completed works (2008.277), which were based on preliminary studies and sketches made in pencil or pastel. But after 1875, he began using pastels more frequently, even in finished works, such as Portraits at the Stock Exchange (ca. 1878–9; 1991.277.1), which displays a subtle grasp of the characteristic postures and attire of the top-hatted gentlemen he portrays. By 1885, most of his more important works were done in pastel. He submitted a suite of nudes, all rendered in pastel, to the final Impressionist exhibition in 1886; among these was Woman Bathing in a Shallow Tub (1885; 29.100.41). The figures in these pastels were criticized for their ungainly poses, as in this work, in which the figure squats awkwardly in a tub, yet the steep perspective gives the work a solid, sculptural balance.

Degas experimented with an array of techniques, breaking up surface textures with hatching, contrasting dry pastel with wet, and using gouache and watercolors to soften the contours of his figures. In Race Horses (ca. 1885–88; 1999.288.3), which depicts another of Degas’ favorite themes, the use of hatching gives a sense of swaying grass. The immediacy of the moment is captured in the raised leg of the horse in the foreground and the foreshortened, angled approach of the vigorous horse in the background. The Singer in Green (ca. 1884; 61.101.7) demonstrates Degas’s use of pastel to achieve the effect of the glare of footlights illuminating his subject from below and his use of coarse hatching to suggest the curtained backdrop behind the singer.

By the late 1880s, Degas’ eyesight had begun to fail, perhaps as a result of an injury suffered during his service in defending Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. After that time he focused almost exclusively on dancers and nudes, increasingly turning to sculpture as his eyesight weakened. In his later years, he was concerned chiefly with showing women bathing, entirely without self-consciousness and emphatically not posed. Despite the seemingly fleeting glimpses he portrayed, he achieved a solidity in his figures that is almost sculptural.

In later life, Degas became reclusive, morose, and given to bouts of depression, probably as a consequence of his increasing blindness. His monotype Landscape (1892; 1972.636), an unusual work from this period, is an unexpected instance of Degas presenting an outdoor scene with no figures, which shows an imaginative and expressive use of color and freedom of line that may have arisen, at least in part, as a result of his struggle to adapt to his deteriorating vision.

Degas continued working as late as 1912, when he was forced to leave the studio in Montmartre in which he had labored for more than twenty years. He died five years later in 1917, at the age of eighty-three.