Edgar Degas (19 July 1834 – 27 September 1917) was a French artist. He is famous for his paintings and sculptures: he was one of those who started Impressionism, although he rejected the term, and preferred to be called a realist.
A superb draughtsman, he is identified with the subject of the dance, and over half of his works depict dancers. These display his mastery in the depiction of movement, as do his racecourse subjects and female nudes. His portraits are notable for their psychological complexity and the way they show human isolation.
He was born in Paris, France. He began to paint early in his life. Because his father wanted it, he went to university to become a lawyer in 1853. Edgar did not like this, and he went to study at the École des Beaux-Arts, an important art-school in Paris in 1855. In 1856 he traveled to Naples in Italy, he stayed there for 3 years. He studied famous painters like Michelangelo and Raphael and learnt by copying their work.
In 1859 he came back to Paris. He started his first important painting The Bellelli Family, and also started on a few paintings on historical myths, like Alexander and Bucephalus and The Daughter of Jephthah. In 1861 he visited Normandy and made his first drawings of horses which were an important subject for his paintings.
After the start of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Degas worked for the National Guard. He did not have time to paint. After the war he went to stay with his brother Rene in New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1873 he went back to Paris and in 1874 his father died. He then found out his brother had large business debts. Edgar had to sell the house and a collection of art he had inherited. He now had to depend on his paintings for his income. He created a lot of great paintings in next 10 years. With the money he earned, he bought paintings by painters he liked a lot. Examples are Manet, Paul Cézanne, Pissarro, Gauguin, Van Gogh and others.
In 1874 Edgar Degas and a group of other painters started to organise their own art exhibition. Their exhibitions were called "Impressionist Exhibitions". At the end of the 1880s, he started to take photographs of his friends. Other photographs, of dancers and nudes, were used as an example for some of his later paintings.
As the years passed, he became isolated. They think that he made sculptures up until 1910. He probably stopped working in 1912. He never married, and he was nearly blind at the end of his life. He died in Paris in 1917.
Degas is often identified as an Impressionist, an understandable but insufficient description. Impressionism originated in the 1860s and 1870s and grew, in part, from the realism of such painters as Courbet and Corot. The Impressionists painted the realities of the world around them using bright, "dazzling" colors, concentrating primarily on the effects of light, and hoping to infuse their scenes with immediacy. They wanted to express their visual experience in that exact moment.
Technically, Degas differs from the Impressionists in that he continually belittled their practice of painting en plein air. "He was often as anti-impressionist as the critics who reviewed the shows", according to art historian Carol Armstrong; as Degas himself explained, "no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and of the study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament, I know nothing." Nonetheless, he is described more accurately as an Impressionist than as a member of any other movement. His scenes of Parisian life, his off-center compositions, his experiments with color and form, and his friendship with several key Impressionist artists—most notably Mary Cassatt and Édouard Manet—all relate him intimately to the Impressionist movement.
Degas's style reflects his deep respect for the old masters (he was an enthusiastic copyist well into middle age) and his great admiration for Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Eugène Delacroix. He was also a collector of Japanese prints, whose compositional principles influenced his work, as did the vigorous realism of popular illustrators such as Daumier and Gavarni. Although famous for horses and dancers, Degas began with conventional historical paintings such as The Daughter of Jephthah (c.1859–61) and The Young Spartans (c.1860–62), in which his gradual progress toward a less idealized treatment of the figure is already apparent. During his early career, Degas also painted portraits of individuals and groups; an example of the latter is The Bellelli Family (c.1858–67), a brilliantly composed and psychologically poignant portrayal of his aunt, her husband, and their children. In this painting, as in The Young Spartans and many later works, Degas was drawn to the tensions present between men and women. In his early paintings, Degas already evidenced the mature style that he would later develop more fully by cropping subjects awkwardly and by choosing unusual viewpoints.
By the late 1860s Degas had shifted from his initial forays into history painting to an original observation of contemporary life. Racecourse scenes provided an opportunity to depict horses and their riders in a modern context. He began to paint women at work, milliners and laundresses. Mlle. Fiocre in the Ballet La Source, exhibited in the Salon of 1868, was his first major work to introduce a subject with which he would become especially identified, dancers.
In many subsequent paintings dancers were shown backstage or in rehearsal, emphasizing their status as professionals doing a job. From 1870 Degas increasingly painted ballet subjects, partly because they sold well and provided him with needed income after his brother's debts had left the family bankrupt. Degas began to paint café life as well, in works such as L'Absinthe and Singer with a Glove. His paintings often hinted at narrative content in a way that was highly ambiguous; for example, Interior (which has also been called The Rape) has presented a conundrum to art historians in search of a literary source—Thérèse Raquin has been suggested—but it may be a depiction of prostitution.
As his subject matter changed, so, too, did Degas's technique. The dark palette that bore the influence of Dutch painting gave way to the use of vivid colors and bold brushstrokes. Paintings such as Place de la Concorde read as "snapshots," freezing moments of time to portray them accurately, imparting a sense of movement. The lack of color in the 1874 Ballet Rehearsal on Stage and the 1876 The Ballet Instructor can be said to link with his interest in the new technique of photography. The changes to his palette, brushwork, and sense of composition all evidence the influence that both the Impressionist movement and modern photography, with its spontaneous images and off-kilter angles, had on his work.
Blurring the distinction between portraiture and genre pieces, he painted his bassoonist friend, Désiré Dihau, in The Orchestra of the Opera (1868–69) as one of fourteen musicians in an orchestra pit, viewed as though by a member of the audience. Above the musicians can be seen only the legs and tutus of the dancers onstage, their figures cropped by the edge of the painting. Art historian Charles Stuckey has compared the viewpoint to that of a distracted spectator at a ballet, and says that "it is Degas' fascination with the depiction of movement, including the movement of a spectator's eyes as during a random glance, that is properly speaking 'Impressionist'."
Degas's mature style is distinguished by conspicuously unfinished passages, even in otherwise tightly rendered paintings. He frequently blamed his eye troubles for his inability to finish, an explanation that met with some skepticism from colleagues and collectors who reasoned, as Stuckey explains, that "his pictures could hardly have been executed by anyone with inadequate vision". The artist provided another clue when he described his predilection "to begin a hundred things and not finish one of them", and was in any case notoriously reluctant to consider a painting complete.
His interest in portraiture led Degas to study carefully the ways in which a person's social stature or form of employment may be revealed by their physiognomy, posture, dress, and other attributes. In his 1879 Portraits, At the Stock Exchange, he portrayed a group of Jewish businessmen with a hint of anti-Semitism. In 1881 he exhibited two pastels, Criminal Physiognomies, that depicted juvenile gang members recently convicted of murder in the "Abadie Affair". Degas had attended their trial with sketchbook in hand, and his numerous drawings of the defendants reveal his interest in the atavistic features thought by some 19th-century scientists to be evidence of innate criminality. In his paintings of dancers and laundresses, he reveals their occupations not only by their dress and activities but also by their body type: his ballerinas exhibit an athletic physicality, while his laundresses are heavy and solid.
By the later 1870s Degas had mastered not only the traditional medium of oil on canvas, but pastel as well. The dry medium, which he applied in complex layers and textures, enabled him more easily to reconcile his facility for line with a growing interest in expressive color.
In the mid-1870s he also returned to the medium of etching, which he had neglected for ten years. At first he was guided in this by his old friend Ludovic-Napoléon Lepic, himself an innovator in its use, and began experimenting with lithography and monotype.
He produced some 300 monotypes over two periods, from the mid-1870s to the mid-1880s and again in the early 1890s.
He was especially fascinated by the effects produced by monotype and frequently reworked the printed images with pastel. By 1880, sculpture had become one more strand to Degas's continuing endeavor to explore different media, although the artist displayed only one sculpture publicly during his lifetime.
These changes in media engendered the paintings that Degas would produce in later life. Degas began to draw and paint women drying themselves with towels, combing their hair, and bathing. The strokes that model the form are scribbled more freely than before; backgrounds are simplified.
The meticulous naturalism of his youth gave way to an increasing abstraction of form. Except for his characteristically brilliant draftsmanship and obsession with the figure, the pictures created in this late period of his life bear little superficial resemblance to his early paintings. Ironically, it is these paintings, created late in his life, and after the heyday of the Impressionist movement, that most obviously use the coloristic techniques of Impressionism.
For all the stylistic evolution, certain features of Degas's work remained the same throughout his life. He always painted indoors, preferring to work in his studio, either from memory, photographs, or live models. The figure remained his primary subject; his few landscapes were produced from memory or imagination. It was not unusual for him to repeat a subject many times, varying the composition or treatment. He was a deliberative artist whose works, as Andrew Forge has written, "were prepared, calculated, practiced, developed in stages. They were made up of parts. The adjustment of each part to the whole, their linear arrangement, was the occasion for infinite reflection and experiment." Degas himself explained, "In art, nothing should look like chance, not even movement".
Degas's only showing of sculpture during his life took place in 1881 when he exhibited The Little Dancer of Fourteen Years. A nearly life-size wax figure with real hair and dressed in a cloth tutu, it provoked a strong reaction from critics, most of whom found its realism extraordinary but denounced the dancer as ugly. In a review, J.-K. Huysmans wrote: "The terrible reality of this statuette evidently produces uneasiness in the spectators; all their notions about sculpture, about those cold inanimate whitenesses ... are here overturned. The fact is that with his first attempt Monsieur Degas has revolutionized the traditions of sculpture as he has long since shaken the conventions of painting."
Degas created a substantial number of other sculptures during a span of four decades, but they remained unseen by the public until a posthumous exhibition in 1918. Neither The Little Dancer of Fourteen Years nor any of Degas's other sculptures were cast in bronze during the artist's lifetime. Degas scholars have agreed that the sculptures were not created as aids to painting, although the artist habitually explored ways of linking graphic art and oil painting, drawing and pastel, sculpture and photography. Degas assigned the same significance to sculpture as to drawing: "Drawing is a way of thinking, modelling another".
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 (i.e., cast from bronze masters). A surmoulage bronze is a bit smaller, and shows less surface detail, than its original bronze mold. The Hébrard Foundry cast the bronzes from 1919 until 1936, and closed down in 1937, shortly before Hébrard's death.
In 2004, a little-known group of 73 plaster casts, more or less closely resembling Degas's original wax sculptures, was presented as having been discovered among the materials bought by the Airaindor Foundry (later known as Airaindor-Valsuani) from Hébrard's descendants. Bronzes cast from these plasters were issued between 2004 and 2016 by Airaindor-Valsuani in editions inconsistently marked and thus of unknown size. There has been substantial controversy concerning the authenticity of these plasters as well as the circumstances and date of their creation as proposed by their promoters. While several museum and academic professionals accept them as presented, most of the recognized Degas scholars have declined to comment.
Édouard Manet and Mme. Manet, 1868-1869, Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art, Japan
Portrait of Miss Cassatt, Seated, Holding Cards, 1876-1878
The Singer with the Glove, 1878, The Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, 1879, The National Gallery, London
Ballet Rehearsal, 1873, The Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Dancers at The Bar, 1888, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC
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