Degas: More than Just Tutus
Thinking of the French artist Edgar Degas often brings to mind the Impressionist movement and images of ballet dancers in tutus. But it is interesting to note that although the ballet dancer is his most well-known subject, it is only one of many subjects that inspired the artist. And although Degas was connected with the Impressionist movement, his work differed significantly from that of the founders of the movement.
Edgar Degas was born in 1834 in Paris, France, the oldest of five children and the son of a banker. At the age of eleven, Degas was enrolled in the Lycee Louis-le-Grand where he received a classical education. With his father, an art and music connoisseur, he visited the Louvre and became acquainted with various art collectors. He went on to study law but eventually broke off his studies to satisfy his desire to paint. Transforming a room of family home into a studio, he worked under the tutelage of artist Felix Joseph Barrias. In 1855, he became a pupil of Lamothe who had been a student of Ingres, whose work Degas admired ardently. In 1855, Degas began studies at the École des Beaux-Arts but in time found it too restrictive. Instead, he spent the next five years copying the paintings of the classical masters. It is estimated that overall, Degas copied nearly 700 masterpieces! During this time, he took several trips Italy and traveled throughout Europe where he experienced Early Christian, Medieval and Renaissance works of art, focusing most heavily on Dürer, Mantegna, Rembrandt and Goya.
In 1859, at the age of 25, Degas opened a studio in Paris, and painted portraits and historical themes which were popular at the time. He quickly established a client base and did not experience the financial difficulty of many of his contemporaries. In 1865, Degas exhibited his art at the official Salon in Paris. It was also around this time that Degas became acquainted with Manet who introduced him to his circle of artist friends who later became known as “The Impressionists.”
Degas was not only influenced by the Impressionists but became associated with their movement. As a result, Degas began to shift to more modern themes and include more realism in his work. The influence of Japanese art also began to show in his work which began to include large areas of solid color. He showed his art in Impressionist exhibitions from 1874 to 1886. Although Degas is associated with the Impressionist movement, he still held a strong attachment to traditional art and his compositions followed the ideals of the old masters. Although Degas made sketches of his subjects on the spot, he preferred to work in a studio, unlike the Impressionists who worked “en plein air.” Nor did he share The Impressionists’ interest in landscape. For these reasons, the work of Degas is often considered to be a “bridge” between past and present.
During the war with Germany in 1870-1871, Degas voluntarily enlisted in the French army and perhaps due to a severe chill, began to experience difficulty with his eyesight. Afterward, he lived with family members in Louisiana and New York for about a year, during which time he painted several works upon the theme of cotton production. Upon his return to Paris in 1873, he opened a new studio and concentrated wholeheartedly on subjects from modern life such as singers, acrobats, washerwomen and the well-known ballet dancers, upon whom most of his fame rests. Another popular theme of Degas’ was “the races” as well as female nudes. With the assistance of several art dealers in France, Degas attempted to bring his work to public attention independently of the Salon. In 1874, at the age of 40, Degas helped organize the first Impressionist exhibition, making the most of his dissimilarity with the other artists to draw attention to his work within the exhibition.
By the late 1870s, Degas’ failing eyesight had begun to impact his ability to paint and he began to apply his talents to pastel which did not require such acute vision. The last impressionist exhibition was in 1886 and as interest began to wane, Degas stopped exhibiting his work. In 1890, Degas began a series of landscapes and became interested in sculpture, which occupied him for the next 10 years. The sculptures Degas created during this time were mostly of ballet dancers and horses. By about 1908, Degas had given up art completely. Beset by financial difficulties, Degas was evicted from his home and although a new studio was found for him, he never settled there. He died in 1917 at the age of 83.
Although Degas considered himself a realist, his rendering of subject matter was the product of careful planning and significant study and analysis. A sullen and rather ill-tempered man, he knew little of spontaneity and instinct and cared little for the opinions of critics. But perhaps it was his focus on analysis and study that enabled him to become a master of movement, color and composition and one of the most significant artists of the late 19th century.
To view a gallery of over 100 of Degas’ works, please click here.
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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
You can see Diana's own artwork by visiting her site at www.dianablake.net.