Degas’ Early Works: Portraits and Horse Racing Paintings

Degas early works: portraits and horse racing paintings

The self-portrait in the Orsay Museum from 1855 is from four years before his residency in the Pigalle area of lower Montmartre and reveals a serious, sullen young man. He has a condescending air and, with brush in hand, is wasting no time applying himself to his work.

Map of lower Montmartre Pigalle for the self-guided walk which guides you to artists’ studios, paintings and canteens. The walk is around the lower Montmartre - Pigalle area and includes sites associated with Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso and the Montmartre jazz scene of the 1920s.
Walk 2, map of lower Montmartre – Pigalle ; route and points of interest of the Montmartre walking tour Montmartre Artists’ Studios © OpenStreetMap contributors, the Open Database Licence (ODbL).

Location: 13 Rue Victor Massé, 1859 – 1872/3, point 17

Degas travelled extensively during this period with long stays in Italy where he had family ties. He made sketches and studies of his aunt, uncle and their family in Florence; these sketches and studies formed the basis of his famous painting The Bellelli family. The work was finished in Paris in 1862 and so can be associated with point 17.

A view of a white painted four storey hotel facade at 13 Rue Victor Massé Montmartre. A wrought iron balcony and cornice runs across the facade on the second floor. The building is now a hotel but used to be Degas’ apartment and studio in the 1860s.
Point 17, 13 Rue Victor Massé, Degas’ apartment and studio in the 1860s.
An OpenStreetMap detail showing the route to point 17, 13 Rue Victor Masse, Edgar Degas lived and worked here from 1859 – 1872/73.
An OpenStreetMap detail showing the route to point 17, 13 Rue Victor Masse, Edgar Degas lived and worked here from 1859 – 1872/73. © OpenStreetMap contributors, the Open Database Licence (ODbL).

In The Bellelli Family, we see a stiff, distant, taught and severe family portrait that perhaps gives us clues into Degas’ own dry, unbending, cool character. The painting can be seen in the Orsay Museum in Paris.

Earlier still from 1860 is Young Spartans Exercising in the National Gallery in London.

Degas horse racing paintings

The new sport of horse racing in Paris

The redevelopment of Paris had brought horse racing onto the Parisian social scene. The newly opened hippodrome at Longchamp in the Bois de Boulogne was a popular meeting point.

Recent advances in photography had shown the range of improbable postures that the galloping horse adopted. These intrigued Degas and he set about incorporating them into his horse racing paintings. The hippodrome was an occasion to study the raw animal power of the horses and the attractive clashing colours of the jockey’s silks.

The ceaseless energy of the horses and the endlessly weaving patterns of jockey’s bright silks may have challenged Degas to consider how best to capture the instant of movement in paint.

Race Horses in Front of the Stands

The At the Races, the Start, in the Fogg Art Museum, from 1860-62 shows us some racehorses straining to get going and the jockeys’ silks caught in a pool of light.

Race Horses in Front of the Stands in the Orsay Museum, Paris is from about 1866-1868.

Horses and jockeys line up for a race. It is sunny, the spectators carry parasols, in the distance we see a chimney and smoke.
Degas’ Race Horses in Front of the Stands. (1) © Wikimedia Commons.

The work is in essence: oil paint thinned with petroleum. The runny paint helps to suggest a veil of thin high cloud as pale light floods through, bathing the ever irregular, individualistic and restless horses, the jockeys and the spectators with diffused milky sunlight.

In the distance one of the jockeys has lost control of a horse, whilst a smoking factory chimney reassures Degas that he is not far from the urban sprawl of the city.

An Infographic timeline which shows where Edgar Degas lived and worked, the dates he lived there and the major paintings to be associated with the addresses and the studios. All of these addresses are in Montmartre and all but one in the Pigalle area of Montmartre.
Edgar Degas’ studios, apartments and major works in the Pigalle area of Montmartre.

Degas portraits

A Woman Seated by a Vase of Flowers

A Woman Seated by a Vase of Flowers from 1865 in the Metropolitan Museum in New York shows a huge vase full of flowers and to the right of the scene a woman gazing pensively out of the frame, her hand drawn up to her cheek.

The woman appears to have her thoughts elsewhere and a part of her body is cropped, Japanese print style, by the edge of the picture. This is her portrait but she is secondary to the enormous floral display positioned in the middle of the image.

A woman, her head propped up by her hand, looks absent mindedly out of the frame beyond the viewer. She is sitting by a small table on which is placed a huge display of flowers in a vase. The flowers are complemented by floral wall paper in the background.
A Woman Seated by a Vase of Flowers. Creative Commons 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) public domain dedication courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929.

The feeling of absence and distraction looks ahead to the isolation of the In a Café aka Absinthe picture of 1876 which I describe at point 4 the Nouvelle Athenes Café.

The flowers in the Woman Seated by a Vase of Flowers painting are beautiful and abundant but will soon fade; she too is young.

Degas tried to capture movement in his art, here he has captured the mood of a moment; the visible beauty of the flowers, the private thoughts of the woman.

The Opera Orchestra

The Opera Orchestra, in the Orsay Museum, Paris is from 1870. It shows a musician friend of Degas, Désiré Dihau the bassoonist, who features prominently at the front of the picture.

Degas has set out to make all of the orchestra members recognisable and relegates what was to become one of his most important artistic theme, the opera ballerinas, to the back of the scene.

We see the girls’ legs and dresses vividly lit by the gas footlights but their heads are cropped out. Looking closely to the left at the top of the picture we see that Degas has included a realistic and telling detail as a male spectator/voyeur eyes the dancers’ legs.


All photographs © David Macmillan except: (1).

All Wikipedia photographic attribution courtesy of the Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons Attribution generator :

(1) Edgar Degas artist QS:P170,Q46373, Degas - Vor den Tribünen, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons