Edgar Degas was a French artist famous for his paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings. He is especially identified with the subject of dance. He is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism, although he rejected the term, and preferred to be called a realist. He was a superb draftsman, and particularly masterly in depicting movement, as can be seen in his renditions of dancers, racecourse subjects and female nudes. His portraits are notable for their psychological complexity and for their portrayal of human isolation. At the beginning of his career, he wanted 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 became a classical painter of modern life.
Degas was born in Paris, the eldest of five children from a Creole from New Orleans, and a banker. He began to paint early in life. At age 18, he had turned a room in his home into an artist's studio, but his father expected him to go to law school. Degas duly enrolled at the Faculty of Law but applied little effort. In 1855, he met Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, whom he revered. In April of that year, Degas was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts. He studied drawing there with Louis Lamothe. In July 1856, he traveled to Italy, where he would remain for the next three years.
Upon his return to France in 1859, Degas moved into a Paris studio and start painting, working on several history paintings. In 1861, he visited his childhood friend Paul Valpinçon in Normandy, and made the earliest of his many studies of horses. He exhibited at the Salon for the first time in 1865, when the jury accepted his painting Scene of War in the Middle Ages, which attracted little attention. Although he exhibited annually in the Salon during the next five years, he submitted no more history paintings, more showing commitment to contemporary subject matter. The change in his art was influenced primarily by the example of Édouard Manet, whom Degas had met in 1864. Upon the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Degas enlisted 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, Degas began an extended stay in New Orleans, Louisiana. He returned to Paris in 1873. Dependent for the first time in his life on sales of his artwork for income, he produced much of his greatest work during this decade. Disenchanted by now with the Salon, he instead joined a group of young artists who were organizing an independent exhibiting society. The group soon became known as the Impressionists. Between 1874 and 1886, they mounted eight art shows. Degas took a leading role in organizing the exhibitions, even he deeply disliked being associated with the term "Impressionist," which the press had coined and popularized. He started collecting works by artists he admired: old masters such as El Greco and such contemporaries as Manet, Pissarro, Cézanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh.
In the late 1880s, Degas also developed a passion for photography. He photographed many of his friends, often by lamplight, as in his double portrait of Renoir and Mallarmé. Other photographs, depicting dancers and nudes, were used for reference in some of he's drawings and paintings. As the years passed, Degas became isolated due to his behavior. He apparently ceased working in 1912, when the impending demolition of his longtime residence on the rue Victor Massé forced him to move to quarters on the boulevard de Clichy. He never married and spent the last years of his life, nearly blind, restlessly wandering the streets of Paris before dying in September 1917.
After Degas's death, his heirs found in his studio 150 wax sculptures, many in disrepair. They consulted foundry owner Adrien Hébrard, who concluded that 74 of the waxes could be cast in bronze. It is assumed that, except for the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, all Degas bronzes worldwide are cast from surmoulages. A surmoulage bronze is a bit smaller, and shows less surface detail, than its original bronze mold.
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