Photograph attributed to his brother, René de Gas
Name: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas
Born: Paris, France
19 July 1834
Died: Paris, France
27 September 1917
The career of Edgar Degas was a long one - about 60 years out of the 83 which he lived. And his style, unlike that of most famous artists who worked into their old age, never ceased developing, always seeking out new means of expression and technique. Besides Degas, arguably only Titian and Picasso were able to maintain such a comparably high level of creativity. The art dealer Ambroise Vollard one day asked him why he had never married, to which he replied: "I would live in constant fear that, whenever I completed a new painting, I would hear my wife say ' That's so pretty what you've done there! ' ". Indeed, despite today's almost universal appreciation and popularity of his images, it was never a conventional sense of beauty which attracted his talents.
Hilaire Germain Edgar de Gas (it was only later that he started to sign his works 'Degas') was born in Paris, the eldest of three boys and two girls born to a prosperous banker from a Neapolitan family and his Créole wife from New Orleans. He was actually named after his grandfathers - Hilaire Degas, a banker from Naples, and Germain Musson, a New Orleans merchant - two men of powerful personalities who were to have much influence on him as a child. However his mother was to die when he was only 13 years old.
He was educated at the lycée Louis-le-Grand, a famous school for the elite, where he received a classical education and also met his long-time friends Henri Rouart, Paul Valpinçon and Ludovic Halévy. Having received his baccalauréat in 1853, he enrolled at the Faculty of Law , although he preferred to spend his time in the print room of the Louvre where he had already made some copies from engravings, and also visiting the painting studios of Félix Barrias and Louis Lamothe. In 1855 he entered the École des Beaux-Arts and began to study officially with Lamothe, an old pupil of Ingres. Indeed, through the mediation of his friends the Valpinçon family who owned Ingre's famous painting the Grande Baigneuse, he actually managed to meet Ingres, a man who, although by then unfashionable with contemporary artists, was to have a lasting influence on him. Throughout his life he was to recall how Ingres exhorted him to "follow the lines". But this didn't prevent him also being influenced just as much by the latter's great rival Delacroix, giving him the ambition of combining the expressive qualities of Ingres with the colour of Delacroix. He was later to describe himself as "a colourist with line".
Not needing to study and compete for the Prix de Rome (a state bursary to enable the most talented young artists to further their studies in Italy), in 1856 he set out for Italy, first visiting his family in Naples and Capodimonte. In October 1857 he visited Rome where he met Gustave Moreau, already an influential figure eight years his elder. They became close friends and visited Florence together between June and August 1858.
Returning to Paris in 1859, he set up studio in the rue Laval, in the quarter where he was born, and commenced painting several ambitious historical canvases of which Sémiramis Construisant Babylone (Semiramis Building Babylon, c.1860-2) was particularly well received. Degas was a great opera enthusiast and this work was inspired by Rossini's Semiramide which was being staged at the time in Paris - although it displays none of the rappport with the spectacle which was to characterise his later work. In such works he attempted to take a fresh look at historical painting which he considered to have been suffocated and stereotyped by the Salon favourites such as Bouguereau, Cabanel and Gérôme. This ambition distanced him from most of his contemporaries who were more modernist and aligned him with Puvis de Chavannes and Moreau who were considered by many to be eccentric and reactionary. Semiramis was a queen of ancient Syria celebrated for both her beauty and cruelty. Moreau was particularly fascinated by stories of femmes fatales and he might well have encouraged Degas in the choice of this theme. The background of the scene certainly has the style of Moreau whilst the panoramic concept evokes the great murals of Puvis de Chavannes. Another now famous painting of this period is his Petites Filles Spartiales Provoquant des Garçons (Young Spartan Girls Challenging Some Boys). If this work is compared with, say Gérôme's Combat de Coqs, exhibited at the Salon of 1847, the originality of Degas' concept of the historical genre scene is quite evident - there are none of the archeological and exotic accessories, no eroticism in the nudes - indeed there is little distinction between the boys and the girls, the latter possessing lean angular bodies and features.
From 1865 to1870 Degas exhibited each year at the Paris Salon. He also became friendly with Berthe Morisot and Edouard Manet and, in the summer of 1869, joined Manet in Boulogne and Saint-Valéry-en-Caux where he painted some landscapes. Indeed ,of all the artists of the time, it is doubtlessly Manet with whom he had the greatest affinity. They were both older than most of the Impressionist circle and both came from prosperous families so that, besides encounters in the cafés frequented by the avant-garde such as the Guerbois and the Nouvelle-Athènes, they could also meet socially within their family circles. Manet was only one year Degas' senior, however his style blossomed earlier and he was already painting scenes from daily life several years before the latter. Nevertheless the influence of Degas is also present in several of Manet's later works.
Degas also assimilated two other major influences into his mature style - English art and Japanese prints. Art from across the Channel was shown at the Universal Exhibition of 1867 and its typical use of a narrative style and the depiction of psychological conflicts between men and women was to influence many French artists of the time. He was probably also kept up to date on the English scene by his friends James McNeill Whistler and James Tissot, the latter being self-exiled in England having taken part in the events of the Paris Commune. Indeed he wrote to Tissot that he wanted to make his fame and fortune in England.
After Japan was opened up to international commerce in 1853 a whole host of Japanese objects appeared and made their mark in the West, but what influenced almost all of the French avant-garde artists (with the notable exception of Cézanne) for the next half-century were the wood engravings. The Japanese influence in his works first appears in about 1850, however it wasn't until the 1870's that Degas became more daring in his employment of Japanese graphic techniques such as asymmetry, elevated view point, compressed space, startling juxtapositions of near and far planes, figures truncated at the edge of the canvas or partially hidden behind architectural details.
The tragic events of the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune of the years 1870-71, together with a lengthy stay in Louisiana visiting his family from October 1872 to March 1873, marked both an interruption and a turning point in his career. At the outbreak of the war he joined the national guard together with his friend Manet and many other artists, under the command of his friend Rouart, however the extreme cold during the siege of Paris badly affected his health badly and at the start of the Paris Commune he went to rest in the Orne with his friends the Valpinçon family. In 1872 he did however exhibit with the Society of French Artists at an exhibition in London organised by the dealer Durand-Ruel, but then in October set off for a five month stay with his brothers in New Orleans.
Returning to France in 1873, he found a very different country from the one he had left and the conservative bourgeoisie now in control of the government and the artistic institutions, so when Monet proposed an exhibition of a group of independent artists, a break-away group from the state-controlled Paris Salon, Degas and most of his friends, with the exception of Manet, Tissot and Legros, eagerly joined up. The first Impressionist exhibition was held on 19th April 1874 at Nadar's photographic studio on the Rue de l'Opéra. The second and third annual exhibitions were subsequently organised by Durand-Ruel in his gallery on the Rue le Peletier.
It was during the 1870's that Degas acquired his enduring reputation as a "painter of dancers". The reasons for his interest in dance were numerous and diverse but certainly stem from his life-long enthusiasm for music and the opera. Indeed amongst his circle of friends could be counted the composers Emmanuel Chabrier and Ernest Reyer. The interior of the opera house also had many visual attractions - the possibility of unusual views onto the stage from balconies or the orchestral pit, contrasts between light and darkness, illusion and reality, beauty and banality ... Degas seemed to be as interested in the effects of artificial light as others among the Impressionist group were interested in the effects of natural light.
There is no evidence that Degas had amorous liaisons with any of the dancers (it would have been quite common at the time for members of his class to have mistresses amongst the corps de ballet) however Daniel Halévy, son of the writer Ludovic Halévy, maintained that "he finds them all delightful and excuses them for all they do and laughs at everything they say". This contrasts remarkably with the typical image of him as a grumpy misogynist!
After the theme of dance it was the racecourse which drew most of his attention and an inventory of his work reveals that to this theme he dedicated no less than 45 paintings, 20 pastels, about 250 sketches and 17 sculptures. Racecourses were a relatively new phenomenon in France, being introduced there from England in the 19th century. The Longchamp stadium opened in 1857 as part of Baron Haussmann's plans for the city, and it was this course which inspired Degas, Manet and, later, Toulouse-Lautrec. The exclusive Jockey Club was inaugurated in 1833 and it naturally attracted the same upper classes who attended the Paris Opera. Of all the Impressionist circle it is significant that the racecourse as a theme inspired only Manet and Degas.
Three other themes did however inspire Degas to produce series of pictures towards the end of the 1870's and during the following decade - the café-concert, laundry women and milliners - each of which permitted him to indulge his apparent interest in Parisian working-class life.
In December 1873 Degas visited his seriously ill father in Italy - the latter was to die in Naples the following February, leaving the family banking business in severe financial difficulty.
From the mid-1870's Degas began to work increasingly with pastels - a technique developed, somewhat ironically, by a female Venetian artist Rosalba Carriera at the beginning of the 18th century, finding popularity with many artists of the time including Maurice Quentin de La Tour, Liotard and Chardin. But it was soon to lose its popularity until the time of Degas. Degas in fact owned several pastels by Maurice Quentin de La Tour although he was forced to sell them along with the rest of his collection in order to pay of his family debts after his father's death.Degas stated that pastels were more suitable for his delicate studies, however they also had several other advantages for him - they were much quicker to work with than paint and so were of major assistance in his experimental works. They could also be used with other techniques such as monotype or the quick drying media of guache or tempera and, being opaque, he could apply several layers of colour and re-work his subjects as often as needed. Besides traditional pastel crayons he also used powdered pastel which, when mixed with water, could be applied with a brush.
The desire to experiment with new techniques is also found in Degas' etchings and lithographs which number over 60. Indeed at the end of the 1870's and into the 80's he collaborated with Camille Pissarro and Mary Cassatt on various experiments in the realm of graphic design, particularly in the production of monotypes using new and diverse techniques. Georges Rivière, an art critic and friend of Renoir said of his work: "If Degas had been content only with engraving his plates, he would have left us the most beautiful etchings in the 19th century".
In the 1890's Degas continued to work with his favourite themes of dancers, bathers and jockeys. But besides these he also became interested again in the countryside. His first personal exhibition, which was held at the Durand-Ruel gallery in 1892, consisted of an extraordinary series of semi-abstract monotypes with enhanced colours representing mysterious landscapes. Besides such landscapes his style wasn't to change dramatically from then on, although his subjects tended to grow in dimension - whereas previously, for example, he would have depicted a whole dance troupe, he now concentrated on perhaps just two or three figures in the foreground. This was undoubtedly to some extend due to his failing eyesight , the first signs of which manifested themselves during the Franco-Prussian war. In fact he believed himself to be slowly going blind from then on.. But this didn't interrupt his work and his images after 1900 appeared to be possessed of an increasing power, as if his deteriorating sight served only to increase his other senses. Renoir was to maintain that "Degas painted his best things when he couldn't see any more".
Degas himself gave another explanation for the mysterious power of his later works: "It's one thing to copy what one sees, but it's much better to draw what can only be seen in one's memory. It's a transformation during which the imagination collaborates with the memory ... there your recollections and fantasies are freed from the tyranny exerted by nature."
In the domain of sculpture, as in that of printing, Degas remained an 'inspired amateur' with little concern for the established techniques of the 'professionals'. His improvisations and daring experiments often resulted in astounding originality. Renoir was to consider him, even more than Rodin, the greatest sculptor of the epoch.
Degas continued to struggle against his blindness and worked up to about 1912 when, on the advice of his friend Suzanne Valadon, he was forced to leave his apartment in Rue Victor-Massé where he had lived for the past quarter century and move to a more convenient address at 6, Boulevard de Clichy. But it proved to be an ordeal from which he never fully recovered and, despite the huge international success and high prices commanded by his works from 1900 onwards, he became sad and indifferent to the glory. He died on 27th September 1917 during the wartime, making his death go almost unnoticed by the world - although perhaps a fitting end for the man who had once said "I would like to be famous but unknown"! He was buried in the cemetery of Montmartre.