The French painter and sculptor Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas (1834-1917) is classed with the impressionists because of his concentration on scenes of contemporary life and his desire to capture the transitory moment, but he surpassed them in compositional sense.
Edgar Degas was born on July 19, 1834, in Paris, the son of a well-to-do banker. From an early age Edgar loved books, especially the classics, and was a serious student in high school. His father hoped his son would study law, but Edgar enrolled at the école des Beaux-Arts in 1855, where he studied under Louis Lamothe, a pupil of J. A. D. Ingres. Degas always valued his early classical training and had a great and enduring admiration for Ingres, a painter with a decisively linear orientation.
In 1856 Degas went to Naples, where his sister lived, and eventually he settled in Rome for 3 years. He admired the Early Christian and medieval masterpieces of Italy, as well as the frescoes, panel paintings, and drawings of the Renaissance masters, many of which he copied. Back in Paris in 1861, he executed a few history paintings (then regarded as the highest branch of painting). Among these was the Daughter of Jephthah (1861), which is based on a melodramatic episode from the Old Testament. He copied the works of the old masters in the Louvre, a practice he kept up for many years.
From 1862 until 1870 Degas painted portraits of his friends and family. In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, he served in the artillery of the national guard. Two years later he went to New Orleans to visit members of his family, who were in the cotton business. Between 1873 and 1883 Degas produced many of his paintings and pastels of the racecourse, music hall, café, and ballet. He had no financial problems, and even prior to the 1870s he had established his reputation as a painter. Degas stopped exhibiting at the respected Salon in 1874 and displayed his works with those of the less well-established impressionists until 1886. Although he was associated with the impressionists, his preoccupation with draftsmanship and composition was not characteristic of the group.
Beginning in the mid-1870s Degas suffered from failing eyesight. From the 1890s on he became increasingly miserly and more and more of a recluse. In the last years of his life he was almost totally blind and wandered aimlessly through the Parisian streets. He died on Sept. 27, 1917, in Paris.
Portraiture was more important for Degas than for any of the other impressionists. Some of his portraits are among the best produced in Western art since the Renaissance, and many reveal his profound understanding of human nature. In the Belleli Family (1859), a group portrait executed in Naples of his aunt, her husband, and their two daughters, Degas caught the divisions within a family. Belleli's emotional separation from his wife is suggested by his pose and by his physical isolation within the room, as he sits cramped at a fireplace, with his back to the viewer. One of the daughters repeats the triangular form of her mother, who shields her, while the other, shown in a more unstable pose, seems to be divided in her loyalties. Among Degas's other portraits are the very soft Head of a Young Woman (1867), Diego Martelli (1879), and Estelle Musson (1872-1873), the blind wife of Degas's brother René, in which the silver and rose tones bring into relief the remote tenderness of the sitter.
Depiction of the Modern Scene
By 1870 Degas had abandoned his desire to become a history painter, and he drew his characters instead from the contemporary Parisian scene. While the bourgeois fashionable world of the ballet, theater, and racetrack interested him considerably, he sometimes depicted squalid scenes of dissipation, as in Absinthe (1876). Degas was especially attracted by the spectacle of the ballet with its elegance of costume and scenery, its movement which was at once spontaneous and restrained, its artificial lighting, and its unusual viewpoints. Usually he depicted the ballerinas off guard, showing them backstage at an awkward moment as they fasten a slipper or droop exhausted after a difficult practice session. He seems to have tried deliberately to strip his dancers of their glamour, to show them without artifice.
On the surface Degas, operating in this candid-camera fashion, fits easily within the confines of impressionism as an art of immediacy and spontaneity. But these scenes of contemporary Parisian life are not at all haphazardly composed: the placement of each detail is calculated in terms of every other to establish balances which are remarkably clever and subtle and which are frequently grasped by the viewer only after considerable study. In Dancers Practicing at the Bar (1877) the perspective of the floorboards is so adjusted and the angle of vision so calculated that a resin shaker at the left of the canvas is able to balance in interest and compositional force the two dancers almost completely to the right of center.
Degas conceived of the human figure as operating within an environmental context, to be manipulated as a prop according to the dictates of greater compositional interest. Eccentricities of poses and cuttings of the figures, which were inspired to a degree by Japanese prints, do not occur accidently in his paintings. In A Carriage at the Races (1873) the figure in the carriage to the left is cut nearly down the middle. Had Degas shown more of this figure, an obvious and uninteresting symmetry would have been set up with the larger carriage in the right foreground.
In copying the Old Masters, Degas sometimes attempted to uncover their techniques. For example, when he copied Andrea Mantegna and some of the Venetians, Degas tried to simulate the Venetian method of building up the canvas with layers of cool and warm tones by a series of glazes. From the mid-1870s he worked increasingly in pastel; and in his last years, when his sight was failing, he abandoned oil completely in favor of pastel, which he handled more broadly and with greater freedom than before.
Pastel, for the most part an 18th-century medium, helped Degas produced qualities of airiness and lightness, as in the Ballerina and Lady with Fan (1885). However, Degas would endlessly experiment with unusual techniques. He would sometimes mix his pastel so heavily with liquid fixative that it became amalgamated into a sort of paste. He would do a drawing in charcoal and use layers of pastel to cover part of this. He would combine pastels and oil in a single work. He would even pass through a press a heavily pigmented charcoal drawing in order to transfer the excess of pigment onto a new sheet so as to make an inverse proof of the original. In his monotypes he used etching in a new way: he inked the unetched plate and drew with a brush in this layer of ink; then he removed all the ink in places to obtain strong contrasts of light and dark or painterly effects in this printing medium. Thus, in a variety of ways Degas succeeded in obtaining a richness of surface effects.
After 1866 Degas executed bronze statues of horses and dancers, up to 3 or 4 feet high, which complemented his interest in these subjects in his paintings. His bronze and painted wax figures of dancers, like the Little Dancer of Fourteen Years (1880-1881), are often clothed in real costumes, an innovation that gives them a remarkable immediacy. In the statues of dancers, Degas catches the figures in a transitory moment, as they are about to change position. As in the paintings, Degas strips the dancers of glamour and sometimes reveals them as scrawny adolescents. The surfaces of Degas's bronzes are not smooth but retain the rich articulations of the wax and thereby complement the expressive surfaces of the impressionist painting.
Further Reading on Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas
Jean Sutherland Boggs, Portraits by Degas (1962), is the definitive work on Degas and is thoroughly documented. John Rewald, Degas: Works in Sculpture (1944), shows a little-known aspect of Degas and contains 112 plates. Lillian Browse, Degas Dancers (1949), contains a fair text and over 150 good black-and-white illustrations of Degas's ballet dancers done in pastel, oil, and sculpture. Daniel Catton Rich, Edgar Hilaire Germain Degas (1951), glosses over Degas's debt to the art before him.