Horses before the
stands-1869
Race horses before the stand - 1869 -  Musée d'Orsay

DEBUSSY -The Isle of Joy (1904)  
 

 

 

French painter and sculptor Edgar DEGAS (1834-1917) is considered to be one of the major representatives of Impressionism, due to his innovating composition and his perspective analysis of motion.

He also was one of the most active organizers of the Impressionist movement, even though his artistic ideas were distinct from those of his Impressionist friends.

He was born German Hilaire Edgar de Gas in Paris on july 1834, of a great and aristocratic family of bankers, rich and refined. His mother was creole, originating in New-Orleans and his father, who was an art lover, allows his son to arrange a workshop in his own house.

 


Self-portrait in a soft hat
1857-58


Sterling and Francine Clark
Art Institute
Williamstown, Massachusetts


A TRADITIONAL FORMATION

After he studied law for a short time, he studied painting at the School of Fine Arts under direction of Lamothe, a disciple of Ingres, painter to whom he would always dedicate a great admiration. He will acquire a great art of drawing which will always be a major characteristic of his art.

In 1859, he leaves for Italy where he will study during three years Quattrocento works , in Florence, Naples and Roma, and execute a number of portraits.

Thus he will thoroughly study antique art, while planning in his notebook as soon as 1859, a whole list of contemporary subjects he intends to paint : musicians, dancers, cafés at night, mourning scenes... all themes that one can find in his work.

By his social condition, his culture and his artistical conceptions, Degas has many points in common with Edouard Manet. Even more than Manet, he is a figures painter, and would almost never be interested in landscape.

 

AN INNOVATING COMPOSITION

"The Bellelli family" (1858-1860) is one of his first truely personal paintings, and may be regarded as one of the first masterpieces of Impressionism.

This painting represents the baron Bellelli, a revolutionary exiled in Naples in 1848, his wife Laura, daughter of late Neapolitan banker De Gas and painter's aunt, and their two daughters out of mourning clothes.

     

As he will do throughout his work, Degas chooses a new composition, and already appears as a Master portraitist whose principal interest is to translate the psychic states of figures.

By its composition - figures with littlely strained attitudes, the father seen from the back as stuck between pieces of furniture and relegated to an incomprehensible insignificance -, he transforms a mourning scene into a banal scene of daily life.

In spite of attitudes that may be interpreted as signs of family cohesion, looks do not meet and are filled with coldness. This objectivity and this fugacity of human relationships are a leitmotiv in Degas's work.

As Manet with his "Olympia", Degas will keep until his death this painting on which he worked a long time.

 

   
 

The Bellelli family
1858-60
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

 

 

CONTEMPORARY AND URBAN THEMES

From 1861, he gave up historical subjects and started to be interested in horse-races subject, an aristocratic inhabitude imported from England, that Géricault (1791-1824) had treated before him. In Longchamp racecourse field, which had just opened, Degas will attentively study the animation of racecourses universe - jockeys, preparations and departure of races... -.

Since 1862 he gets friendly with Manet (" Portrait of Manet ", 1864), but will not meet Monet and Renoir before 1865, at the Café Guerbois. From 1865 to 1870, he will successfully send his works each year to the official Salon. After 1870, he will definitively cease his sendings .

Unlike the other Impressionists, Degas will always prefer workshop painting and will never share their love for countryside and open air painting, nor their research about natural light which was at the center of their preoccupations. Quite to the contrary, he will study the effects of artificial light (lamps with gas).

His visual memory enables him to precisely retranscribe in workshop the subjects which he observed, which he recreates in a pictorial composition wanted by him. Degas asserted the artist's right to translate his artistic will, thus being opposed on that matter to Impressionists who privileged spontaneity of painting from motif.

Degas will thus say about his art : " No art is as little spontaneous as mine. What I do is the result of thought and study of the Old Masters; about inspiration, spontaneity, character, I know nothing..." or : "I do not want to lose my head in front of nature".

 

At that time, while keeping on working on realistic portraits, such as "Woman with chrysanthemums" - 1865, Degas sends to the Salon in 1866 a horse-race painting, and starts to get interest in another major theme in his work: theatre, dance and music .

With "The orchestra at the Opera house" - 1868-69 , Degas again signs a very innovative composition, with superimposed plans seen from first rank, the pit with the musicians, and the stage where decapitated ballet dancers form a swirl of legs and tutus.

Although Degas seldom looked at subjects outside the limits of his social sphere, he will treat the subject of women ironing , then à-la-mode in literature and painting, that he will episodically paint throughout his work ("A woman ironing" - 1869) .

 


The orchestra at the Opera House
c. 1868-69
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Fond of "modernity" and admirer of urban life, Degas is an skeptic observer without illusions, who often seeks to express in his paintings inconsistency, bitterness, unusual or incomprehensible of situations.

During the franco-prussian war of 1870, Degas will serve, like Manet, in the National Guard in Paris. After the Commune, he will visit some of his relatives in the New-Orleans, from which he will bring back the famous painting " Portraits in a New Orleans Cotton office " - 1873

Degas is co-organizer of the 1st group exhibition of the Impressionists in 1874, and will from there on only exhibit in the shows of the Impressionist group.

 

PAINTER OF MOVEMENT

 

As Degas did not have to sell his paintings to live, he will continue to work, without order, on his favorite subjects: contemporary portraits, horse-races, café scenes, scene world. He will get more and more interested in ballet, which will become to him the artistic dominating matter.

He sees in the ballet, apart from the magic which it exerts on him, an ideal subject of observation of fast motion, as well as a vast opportunity for space composition, offered by all the surface of the scene.

Quickly, Degas will get aware, throughout his backstage observations of artists while at work - exercises, rehersals -, of the existing shift between the fairyhood of costumes and spectacles and the miserable social condition of dancers.

For Degas, theatre, music and dance, a microcosm which focuses the attention of the rich ones who can pay for luxury of the spectacles, will become a privileged place for observation of human relationships and contradictory relations between art, work and business.

 


Dancers
1878
Private Collection

 

ADAPTATION TO HIS EYES' DESEASE

Degas had to suffer the effects of some bad deals of his family, although he will never experience hardship, but above all he will be affected from 1870 by eyes' disease, which will continually worsen, in spite of cares, until total blindness in 1911 which will mark the end of his artistic activity.

having a difficult and recluse character, Degas will live more and more in a certain misanthropy, but his artistic activity will remain exceptional : to his painting work which he will make evolve to indoor scenes and to pastel, he will add a work as a sculptor (and even a short and intense work as a photographer between 1895 and 1896).


Morning bath
1883
Pastel
on paper
Art Institute of Chicago

 

As from 1879, through works such as "Woman at her dressing table", Degas will get almost exclusively interested in an extremely ancient theme, that of women at their toilet.

Ironic, sometimes cruel, but always objective and bright in the representation, his realism reached with crudeness often demystifying of women.

Since he had been practising pastel work for a long time, he will more and more privilegiate this technique when his sight will get too deteriorated for meticulous oil painting.

He will take advantage of it to adopt a freeer and lighter technique, modelling volumes by only mean of light and enhancing the whole by some strokes of pure color. 

As for Manet, Degas, the painter of ballet dancers, but also of milliners, horse races and cafés, will arouse admiration from his contemporains and great respect from young artists of his time.

Degas is a too independent personality to be merged completely in the Impressionist movement. If he is historically one of its main pieces, what binds him to the Impressionist movement is much more his rebel and non-conformist mind, his liking for modernity and his desire for a contemporary painting, rather than his artistic ideas which are often in opposition with those of the Impressionists.

Degas ceased any artistic activity only since 1911, when he became totally blind.

His whole work as a painter, a very important one (2000 paintings), may be characterized by his truely objective approach of subjects, an extreme concern about realism, a precise drawing, and research and study about motion.

He tries to seize motion, in the same manner as incipient photography - that he practised with success -, through natural and spontaneous poses.


 


Horsemen, rainy weather
1886
Glasgow Museums and
Art Gallery , Ecosse