Edgar Degas Biography

Edgar Degas was once considered a simple Impressionist painter, obsessed with dancers. The Degas paintings of ballerinas, showing the dancers changing positions, tying shoes or resting have long been admired for their beauty and realism. But to dismiss Degas as a simple painter of pretty images is to do the artist a great injustice. Throughout his long career, Degas would embrace multiple types of painting, master three-dimensional sculpture and produce breathtaking works in charcoal. He left behind a body of work that influenced artists as diverse as Edward Hopper, Toulouse-Lautrec and Pablo Picasso.

Early Years

Hilaire German Edgar De Gas was born in 1834 in Paris. His father was a successful banker, his mother was a homemaker. Degas was quite close to his mother, and grieved tremendously when she died in 1847. Some critics believe that the loss of his mother led to a sort of social isolation, a theme that reappears in many Degas paintings. 

Degas attended the Lycee Louis-le-Grand, and received a classical education. The young Edgar Degas was a serious student, interested in reading and music. While the elder Degas wanted his son to become a lawyer, Edgar was determined to become an artist and furthered his artistic education in 1855, when he enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Artwork by Degas from this period shows the artist's skill in drawing and composition. In 1856, Degas would abandon his formal education and travel to Italy to study painting and composition independently. This study of painting, Degas felt, would teach him more than his works in a classroom. Degas would stay in Italy for three years, filling his notebooks with copies of paintings by Giotto, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

Early Career

Degas returned to Paris in 1861. Paintings by Degas from this early period are mainly historical, depicting famous people and scenery. He continued his independent study by copying famous images from the Louvre. Degas also painted portraits of his friends and family. These Degas paintings weren't satisfactory to the artist, and he began to transform his techniques.

In 1866, Degas painted The Steeplechase, and announced his transformation as a serious and innovative artist. In this large and bold painting, a horse race is shown. The animals are sleek and bold, outlined starkly in black. Paintings of horse races were common, but this painting contains one bold addition: a fallen rider who lies underneath his horse. The other riders pay him no notice. His awkward pose and his isolation are elements that would reappear in many of the later Degas dancers paintings.

Impressionism

In the 1870s, Degas paintings had achieved some fame and the artist began to enjoy financial freedom. He would stop contributing paintings to the Salon in 1874 and began to display his paintings with the independent Impressionist painters. He would continue this practice until 1886.

As part of the Impressionist movement, Degas would lighten his color palette considerably. Blacks and browns would virtually disappear from his color choices and his brush strokes would become more prominent and visible. Degas also began to study Japanese art. The unique angles and unconventional cropping techniques in these images would appear in Degas art from this time period. Unlike the other Impressionist painters, however, Degas paintings typically did not contain landscapes. Rather, paintings by Degas focused on people and scenes from life in Paris.

Between 1870 and 1873, many Degas ballerina paintings were generated. In The Dance Class painted in 1871, dancers are shown stretching, posing, resting and dancing. One lone male figure plays violin in the middle of the image. While some dancers interact, most seem lost and isolated in their own activities. By painting this sort of dancer, Degas was able to explore many themes all at once, including sexual tension, isolation, beauty and the contortion of the female body in the name of beauty. These themes would recur in later Degas ballerina paintings as well.

In 1874, Degas helped to put together the first Impressionist exhibit. Many of these paintings of dancers Degas generated were on display. While other Impressionist paintings were considered strange and unlikable, by both buyers and critics, paintings by Degas were well received. Viewers appreciated the look at intimate Parisian life, as well as the subtle humor contained in many of the paintings.

Expansion

Degas began to experiment with sculpture in 1866. Once again for Degas, ballerinas would prove the inspiration. He would carve sculptures of dancers in awkward poses, often demonstrating their youth. Many of these Degas dancer sculptures are on display in museums around the world.

In the late 1880s and 1890s, Edgar Degas paintings changed once more. The artist began to generate multiple studies of nude female figures, often while they are bathing. These are studies that are nearly like sculptures, with an emphasis on line and curve over faces and expressions. In After the Bath, a woman's back and spine face the viewer. The creamy color of her skin blends in with the sheets below her. She dries her hair, as the towel drapes down to the floor. We are plunged into an intimate moment, and yet the model takes no notice of us. In Woman in the Bath, a woman bends to pull up water. Her spine and shoulders are clearly shown in this awkward pose, but once again she doesn't look directly at the viewer and her face is hidden. These are bold paintings in which nudity and intimacy are turned upside down.

In 1912, Degas retreated from the art world altogether. Accounts of the Degas biography from this period vary. Some sources state that the artist wandered through the streets of Paris. Other accounts state that the artist stayed in his own home and received few visitors. Regardless, his reputation during this time continued to grow as his works were shown. Many American collectors snatched up his paintings during this time. Degas died in 1917.