Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas was born in Paris into a well-to-do banking family. His father, whose family originated from Breton nobility, was born in Naples and his Creole mother, Célestine Musson, was born in New Orleans. She died in 1847 when Degas was 13 years old. His grandfather (who had left France at the time of the French Revolution) and his father always signed their names ‘de Gas’, a usage that Edgar continued until about 1870. He only signed works when he sold or exhibited them, and after his death, the executors of his estate stamped red signatures on all the works in his studio. Degas rarely dated his works.
He went to school at the prestigious Lycée Louis-le-Grand. His father was an enlightened connoisseur who introduced his son to art and music and was acquainted with famous collectors of the time. In 1852, Edgar set up a studio in the fourth floor of the family building on Rue Mondavi. He began studying law in 1853, according to his father’s wishes, and gave up after one term to follow his vocation for painting. He studied briefly under Félix Joseph Barrias in 1853 and then with Louis Lamothe, a pupil of Ingres and Hippolyte Flandrin. In April 1855, he entered the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris but soon gave this up to focus on copying works in the Louvre. There, he met Edouard Manet and Mary Cassatt, among others. He continued working in museums during his long stay in Italy from 1856 to 1859, where he visited family members in Naples, Florence, and Tuscany. In Rome, he also attended classes at the Villa Medici and met regularly with the Macchiaoli painters. He produced about 15 self-portraits during this time, as well as numerous portraits of his Italian family members. He returned to Paris in 1860 and settled in his own studio on Rue Madame, in the Sixth Arrondissement. An alert observer and a prolific worker, he worked essentially in his workshop, but an interest in studying movement soon led him to the racecourses, and, from the 1860s onward, he became a frequent visitor of the Paris Opéra and its Foyer de la Danse in Rue Pelletier. In the early 1860s, Manet introduced him to a group of young artists who called themselves the Indépendants and met regularly at the Café Guerbois on Avenue de Clichy; they were to become known as the Impressionists over the following decade.
Degas, a republican, joined the army during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 to defend Paris. In the artillery division of the French National Guard, he found himself serving under his former schoolmate Henri Rouart, who was then captain of the artillery. For a couple of years, Degas had been suffering from serious trouble in his right eye. The precise cause could not be determined, but it seemed to be because of a chronic infection. His eyesight deteriorated progressively, leaving him partially blind during his last years. After the war, he travelled to Normandy to stay with his friends, the Valpinçons; in 1872 he went to London. There, he arranged for his passage to New Orleans, sailing in October 1872 to visit his brothers René and Achille. Degas spent five months in New Orleans, focusing on family portraits and working on his Portraits in an Office, New Orleans (1873). He returned to Paris, where the Groupe des Indépendants now met in the Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes in the Batignolles area. In 1873, he helped organise an exhibition staged by Monet and the Batignolles painters as an alternative to the official Salon. He thus became a member of the organisation founded in December 1873 to promote ‘independent art’ – the Société Anonyme Coopérative à Capital Variable des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs et Graveurs, Etc. – free from the Academic constraints of the time. The Société organised a series of exhibitions in alternative spaces, starting in 1874 in Felix Nadar’s studio. In April 1873, Degas settled in the Rue Blanche (in the Ninth Arrondissement) and went briefly to Italy to take care of his father, who died the following year in Naples. His inheritance was a complex one as the small family business had been struggling for a few years and successive loans had put it in difficulty. Forced to pay off some of these debts, Degas needed, for the first time in his life, to earn a living. He had, however, established a strong reputation among French art circles and participated – from 1866 to 1870 – in the prestigious Salon, held each year in Paris. In addition to several London shows in 1872 and 1873, he participated in seven of the eight Impressionist group shows from 1874 to 1886. From 1872 on, he also sold his works to dealers such as Paul Durand-Ruel and Ambroise Vollard, and several British collectors acquired his works. His Ballet Scene from Robert le Diable (an opera by Meyerbeer) was the first work by an Impressionist to enter a British public collection (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). However, the only picture to be acquired by a museum in his lifetime was Portraits in an Office, New Orleans (finished 1873, now in the Musée Municipal, Pau, France). Although Degas travelled extensively – and frequently to Italy – he spent almost all his life in France, particularly Paris. He visited Spain in 1880 and 1889 – when he also travelled to Morocco with Giovanni Boldoni – went to Switzerland in September 1882, spent the summers of 1896 and 1897 in the Mont-Dore spa, in central France, and the summer of 1898 on the northern coast of France, in Valery-sur-Somme. He also made various trips to Normandy (from 1861) and Burgundy (1890) and travelled to the Vosges mountains in 1904. In 1894–1895, he developed a passion for photography and produced numerous portraits of Stéphane Mallarmé, Auguste Renoir, and the Halévy family, some self-portraits, and photographs of models (nudes and dancing figures) and landscapes, which he used as working material. The camera provided Degas with a new tool for sketching and introduced a new distance between perception and reality. There are fewer than fifty known surviving photographs.
Degas was also a keen collector who sometimes went daily to Drouot, the Parisian auction house. He dedicated a floor of his house to his collection of paintings, drawings, curios, and statuettes. He started his collection in the 1890s and bought works by Camille Corot, Manet, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and Eugène Delacroix. Degas met Ingres on three occasions: in 1855 he persuaded his friend Edward Valpinçon to lend his Bather, by Ingres, to the Exposition Universelle and accompanied Valpinçon to Ingres’s studio, where he collected and returned the painting; Ingres advised Degas to ‘draw lines, either from memory or from nature’. Degas visited Ingres once again in 1863, when Ingres – then 83 years old – organised a one-man show in his own studio on Quai Voltaire.
Degas was a relatively solitary man, intransigent, enigmatic, and caustic, or ‘brilliant and insufferable’, as the poet Paul Valéry once said. Always a compulsive walker, he continued his promenades into old age. He lived in Montmartre for more than 20 years. He rented the top three stories of a house on the Rue de Laval (now Rue Victor-Massé), opposite the famous dancing and music hall Bal Tabarin. He had his living quarters on the first floor, his collection on the second, and his studio in the attic. In 1912, the building was demolished, and Degas was forced to move. He rented an apartment and studio on the Boulevard de Clichy.
By 1898, Degas had become almost blind and was tormented by multiple health problems that began to prevent him from working. When he could no longer see well enough to paint or draw, he turned to sculpture as his sole means of expression, until his deteriorating eyesight forced him to stop working altogether. After his 1912 move, his niece Jeanne Fèvre took care of him. His mental health slowly deteriorated and he died in September 1917.
A seminal painter and sculptor, Degas was a naturalist until the mid-1870s, rendering space in a manner inherited from the classical Romantic tradition. Both a traditionalist and a revolutionary, he painted scenes of contemporary Parisian life: behind-the-scenes images of dancers rehearsing or resting, horse-racing scenes, the intimate gestures of women washing or women at work. He strove to depict movement and the human figure in motion. His innovations were both technical and aesthetic, and he foreshadowed many developments in 20th-century painting. Although he participated in the Impressionist exhibitions, he considered himself one of the Indépendant artists. However, as a realist or naturalist, he shared the Impressionists’ aesthetic convictions with regards to both technique and subject matter. He too pursued a vision of modern life, and his fascination with movement mirrored the Impressionists’ desire to capture the fugitive moment. He was not, however, interested in the transient effects of light and colour. His concern for expression and the clarity of outline set him apart from the Impressionists, as did the fact that he worked with models in his studio and from his imagination. Degas’s precise style, his reliance on drawing, and his method of composition were at odds with those of the Impressionists. His technique also differed in its search for novelty; he was constantly exploring new mediums, experimenting with monotypes, etching, lithography, pastels, sculpture, and photography. He remained the most accomplished draughtsman among the Impressionists and was the only one of them to generate a major body of sculptures.
His work can be divided into several periods: the copies and early portraits; history subjects in the 1860s; scenes from modern life – racecourses, theatre, group portraiture, genre subjects – from 1865 onwards; and female ballet dancers, women at work, landscapes, and urban leisure scenes from the early 1870s onwards. In the 1880s, he increasingly turned to pastel and experimented with monotypes and wax sculptures. In the 1890s, his art was characterised by broader strokes of paint and more vibrant colors.
In the 1850s, after working at the Louvre in Paris, he copied paintings in different Italian museums, choosing models from the Italian Quattrocento painters, the great masters of the 16th century and statues from antiquity. He also painted portraits, in which he represented his friends and family members or sometimes himself (he gave up painting his own face after the age of 31), with a particular attention on his sitters’ personalities, gestures, and unusual features. His mode of observation and attention to detail bring him close to the Flemish tradition while his treatment of line shows the influence of Ingres. He gradually gained more freedom of expression, breaking with the conventions of his earlier compositions. His portrait of the Bellelli family (1858–1867) was quite daring for the patriarchal society of the 19th century. It shows a family in its home, with many allusions to a delicate political situation: the marginal position of the father, seen from behind, at the right side of the painting; the pregnant and mourning mother; the drawing on the wall representing Degas’s grandfather, which reveals the painter’s desire to represent the span of four generations in the same picture. From 1856 to 1865, he executed several history paintings, or works with historical or Biblical themes, but his Neo-Classical compositions, mainly inspired by Greek literature, were perhaps overly ambitious; Young Spartans Exercising (c. 1860) was reworked several times, leaving numerous related drawings and studies. His interest in the nude and in body movement was already apparent. From 1860 to 1872, he made his first studies of horses and races, influenced by the English sporting pictures by painters such as John Frederick Herring and Henry Alken. His Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey – which he presented in the 1866 Salon – is marked by his interest in immediacy. He was influenced both by photography and Japanese prints, incorporating close-up views and new layouts in his compositions. He was inspired by the works of Honoré Daumier, the satirical lithographs of Paul Gavarni, and the naturalist trend in the literature of the time, exemplified by such writers as Edmond Duranty and Émile Zola. He often went looking for subjects out of his own social sphere and started drawing and painting laundresses in the mid-1860s, deliberately refusing to adopt an allegorical or moral tone that was customary at the time. Over a 30-year period, Degas created 27 works depicting laundresses.
From 1866 onwards, he painted portraits of singers and musicians while frequenting the Opéra in the Rue le Pelletier. Ballet dancers were to feature largely in his work, representing more than a third of his pastels and paintings and even more drawings, prints, and sculptures. However, he never represented a dancer on pointe except in The Rehearsal of the Ballet on Stage (1874) but rather showed figures anticipating or concluding movement, thus creating a vision of dynamic forms in space. The patterns and rhythms of the working women he depicted led him to experiment with pictorial space. He used the horizontal format in order to create a panoramic sense of space and sometimes worked in relatively small formats, such as The Dancing Class (probably 1871, 7¾ × 10½ ins/19.7 × 27 cm). Inspired by the work of the Tuscan Mannerists and Japanese prints, he viewed subjects from unusual angles, often partially cut off by the margin or out of focus, as in The Orchestra of the Opera (1868), in which the heads and shoulders of the dancers are cropped to focus on the contrast between the musicians in the orchestra pit and the brightly lit dancers’ legs and tutus above. In these off-centre compositions, Degas used stylistic repoussoirs, or devices – usually a strongly defined shape in the foreground of a picture – that effectively led the viewer’s eye to the main event and gave the picture greater depth. In The Orchestra of the Opera, the top of a double bass acts as the repoussoir, crossing out the top of the immediate foreground, forcing the viewer to focus on the figures behind. In doing this, Degas introduced a new visual interplay between the space of the painting and the space of the spectator, using artificial illumination to increase this effect.
Models posed for him several times a week, sometimes twice a day. Deeply interested in the psychological study of his models, he represented women engaged in intimate and real-life situations, including their ‘toilette’ – bathing, grooming, or drying their hair – often seen from the back. There was no attempt to exclude their sometimes awkward and intimate postures. ‘The nude’, he said, ‘has always been portrayed in postures that presuppose an audience. But my women are simple, straightforward women, concerned with nothing beyond their physical existence . . . It’s as though one is peeping through a keyhole’.
Degas also painted more than 300 landscapes. They were always made from memory, free from the constraints of detail and thus enhanced by the structure of the landscape and its atmosphere. He produced three series of landscapes (1869, 1890–1892, 1895–1898), a series of marines about 1869 – painted at the Manets’ holiday home in Boulogne-sur-Mer – and, from 1890 to 1892, a series of landscape monotypes made on a visit to see Pierre-Georges Janniot in Burgundy with the sculptor Albert Bartholomé. Using Janniot’s printing press, Degas worked on the monotypes in oil paints in a range of colours. He worked from memory, creating an imaginary space with no depth, keeping the marks of ink on the paper. On returning to Paris, he continued this technique, relying almost entirely on colour and ignoring line. Degas produced 300 monotypes between 1874 and 1884, and these demonstrate a great flexibility and freedom of expression. In these he worked by wiping, brushing, or rubbing away ink applied to etching plates, creating images with black backgrounds. He usually made a second print after he had drawn figures, for which he used pastel and gouache. The separation between mass and the surface brought him closer to the Impressionist technique. Around 1876, he began to make lithographs. The catalogue of his prints, compiled at the time of the sale of the contents of his studio (22 November 1918), includes large numbers of etchings, soft-ground etchings (vernis-mous), aquatints, lithographs, and monotypes.
Degas chose to work in his studio from memory and from sketches; in any event, his troubled eyesight prevented him from painting outdoors. He used stocks of drawings, filling 88 sketchbooks in his lifetime. In his youth, he used a lead pencil, attaining an Ingres-esque quality. In the mid-1860s, he preferred black chalk blended with a ‘tortillon’ (stump), then used black crayon before working almost exclusively in charcoal, which was better adapted to his vigorous lines. He used a plumb line and calipers, as well as tracing paper, for both the preparatory drawings and the final work. He transferred charcoal figures from paper to paper, creating tracings of tracings that he enlarged to develop a particular detail. He would then work on them in pastel. He also pressed charcoal drawings on sheets of dampened paper and eventually worked on the resulting print with pastel. Degas seldom used watercolour, preferring oil, but then gradually turned to pastels, exploiting the technical freedom this media offered him, creating strong luminous backgrounds with delicate strokes as well as slashes and hatching. Around 1879, he made use of what he called an ‘electrical crayon’, a carbon rod from an arc lamp that he had found in his friend Alexis Rouart’s factory. This became his regular medium for etching, providing a silvery tonality. Degas also painted 25 fans and just one still-life.
In the late 1860s, he started modelling small sculptures in wax or a soft material composed chiefly of wax. He represented horses and, about 1898, many dancers and nude bathers. There are three known sculptures of busts, two of which have disappeared – one of a painter friend and one of Hortense Valpinçon. He used the same postures as those in his drawings and paintings, exploring all aspects of the form in action. He chose wax for its expressiveness, colouring it with different hues to further this effect. Over time, as he concentrated on the observation of mass rather than detail, his figures became rougher. Most of these works were experiments: ‘They are exercises to get me going: documentary, preparatory motions’, he told Francois Thiebault-Sisson in Le Temps. They were fragile and were not made to last. Two sculptures emerge as extraordinarily innovative works, made with actual as well as represented materials. In The Tub, a nude bather sits in a real lead basin resting on a wooden base with plaster-soaked rags; the audacity of the sculpture lies in the unusual approach to the figure, which can only be fully viewed from above because of her twisting arms and legs. Dressed Ballet Dancer ( or Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, 1880–1881) is the largest of his sculptures and the only one that Degas exhibited in his lifetime. He conceived it for the Fifth Impressionist Exhibition, in 1880, and finally displayed it at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition in 1881. It represents Marie van Goethem, a pupil from the ballet class at the Paris Opéra, and can be seen as a synthesis of his research as a sculptor. The figure is dressed in a cloth costume, with a bodice and a gauze tutu with a silk ribbon and pink ballet slippers, and has a long horsehair braid tied with another ribbon. The critic and novelist J. K. Huysmans was one of the few to appreciate its modernity, describing it as ‘both refined and barbaric with her busy costume and her coloured flesh, palpitating, lined with the work of its muscles’. The sculpture shook up the conventions of Academic sculpture, which were based on the study of antiquity, and was thus generally judged harshly realistic, even bestial. This rejection discouraged Degas from publicly showing sculpture again. With the exception of this piece, the dates of his sculptures are not known. After his death, 150 wax and modelling-clay sculptures were found in his studio, according to the dealer Durand-Ruel’s 1917 inventory. These statuettes were the ones to survive the bad conditions of conservation and Degas’s improvised armatures. His heirs and executors agreed to cast 73 of his wax originals in bronze. At the end of World War I, Degas’s longtime friend, the sculptor Paul-Albert Bartholomé, prepared the sculptures, and casting was entrusted to the Hébrard foundry. An edition of 22 copies of each figure was made by Albino Palazzolo, the foundry master, according to the lost-wax casting technique, and five copies were made of a 74th sculpture, The Schoolgirl (or Woman Walking in the Street). Hébrard also cast twenty other bronzes. In 1955, all but four of the originals, until then thought to be destroyed, were found in the cellar of Hébrard’s house; these were acquired by Paul Mellon. The lost-wax technique required that the originals be first cast in plaster. Two plaster casts made of the Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, are now in the Joslyn Art Museum, in Omaha, Nebraska, and in the Foundry Valsuani.