Edgar Degas a Classical Realist Capturing Movement

Edgar Degas the realist painter of movement

Degas’ mission

Degas’ mission throughout his artistic life was to try to represent movement and to translate it to the flat, still surface of the canvas.

His art realistically portrayed the unexpected shapes and awkward postures that bodies adopted to maintain equilibrium when in motion. Degas explored the phenomenon of the individual’s instinctive balance in his bathers series.

His main subjects were ballerina dancers, nude female bathers and horses. He returned obsessively, throughout his career, to the ballerinas of the Paris Opera. Degas tried to freeze-frame the young dancers’ supple limbs, turning their difficult drills and stylised rehearsal routines into fixed images in paint and pastel which the imagination of the viewer could forever bring to life.

Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917) was from a rich Parisian family. His father, a banker, was of Italian heritage and his mother American.

He was active from the 1850s to the early years of the 20th century.

His family wanted him to become a lawyer but it was not long before the young Degas was enrolled in Paris’ best known arts school—l’École des Beaux-Arts (the Academy of Fine Arts).

Degas was never a struggling artist. Throughout his career he always had the economic independence to choose his own style and subject matter.

Stubborn and solitary

Degas said, “Once I have a line, I hold onto it, I never let it go.”

He returned many, many times—always looking for a telling new detail—to his favourite subjects: the Paris Opera ballerinas and nude female bathers.

Degas was accused of being arrogant, stubborn and misogynistic. He was also witty, ironic and keenly observant.

He appears to have used his sharp wit and irony to keep people at a distance. He had little time for relationships because they got in the way of what was most important for him—art.

His hard-headed-single-mindedness spilled over into his choice of apartments; during his working life he never moved out of Montmartre and more particularly the Pigalle area of lower Montmartre. He lived and worked for decades within a very restricted area.

What influenced Degas’ art?

Degas received an academic artistic education at the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris.

He admired the old masters. Degas travelled extensively especially to Italy where he saw and studied masterpieces of ancient sculpture.

He was also a regular visitor to the Louvre museum.

Degas particularly admired the French painter Ingres (1780 – 1867). When he had the opportunity to meet him, Ingres told the young artist to concentrate on line—it was advice Degas never forgot. Degas was a great draughtsman, his eye and hand trained by many hours sketching in the Louvre.

He may have had a reputation for being set in his ways but he was open to new techniques, new technology and innovation. He was prepared to explore and exploit developments in photography and monotype printing if they showed the potential to suit his artistic purpose.

Degas mastered oils, watercolour and essence but is most famous for his use of pastel.

He also executed many small scale wax sculptures which—except for one famous occasion—he kept to himself in his studio as studies to help his painting. The sculptures informed his paintings and the paintings talked to the sculptures in a restless, unending, inconclusive dialogue about how to represent movement in Degas’ mind.

Degas, like many of his contemporaries such as Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent van Gogh, was intrigued and influenced by Japanese prints. He paid particular attention to the way Japanese artists cropped figures. Cropping is when only a part of the subject is shown in the frame of the picture. It indicates movement as the subject appears to enter or leave the scene and also suggests the idea that other things are happening outside of the context of the picture frame.

Degas was a founding member of the Impressionist group

Degas, like many artists of his day was frustrated by the entrenched conservatism of the Salon and the arts establishment in Paris. The annual Salon or official Paris arts show regularly rejected artists who tried to exhibit. The jury of the Salon had a very narrow academic definition of appropriate subject matter and style of painting.

Names which are now well known to us such as Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Morisot, and Cézanne were then regularly refused wall space at the show.

By the 1870s many contemporary artists considered the yearly event no longer fit for purpose. It was out of touch with modern society and new trends in art. Discontent had been building in the Parisian artistic community—especially among the artists who were regularly rejected—and in 1873 Degas helped found an independent company of artists. Together, in 1874, they would organise their own art shows in direct competition with the Salon.

This group came to be known as the Impressionists.

A founding member but never an Impressionist

Degas was a founding member, but never considered himself an Impressionist. He is reported as saying to his Impressionist colleagues “You need natural life, I need artificial life”. He preferred the controlled environment of the studio to the changing conditions of the country where the Impressionists tried to capture the effect of natural light with dashes of colour and enthusiastic, free-flowing, jabbing brush strokes.

Degas styled himself a realist or an independent. His work was set in the contemporary environment of Paris and Montmartre: at the Paris Opera, in a domestic setting where women bathed, occasionally at the horse races, or in a café concert.

Degas in his studio: props and models, bad feeling but great art

In the staged sets of the studio, among a jumble of painting props—tubs, armchairs and dressing screens—Degas strove to catch the various momentary and sometimes surprising postures of the body in motion.

He forced his bathing models to pose forever in uncomfortable, unnatural, awkward positions, stretching or bent double. The bathers’ aching backs, stinging legs and twisted necks no doubt meant that Degas was on the wrong end of some colourful language as the women frowned and muttered to themselves. In their minds Degas was a devilish, cruel artist.

Degas cared little for their discomfort or their thoughts as he coolly observed, and sketched. Out of this trying, bad-tempered collaboration would flow the great bathers series.

Where did Edgar Degas live in Montmartre?

  • 13 Rue Victor Massé, 1859 – 1872/3, point 17 on lower Montmartre circuit
  • 77 Rue Blanche, 1872/3 – 1876, point 7 on lower Montmartre circuit
  • 4 Rue Frochot, 1876 – 77, point 14 on lower Montmartre circuit
  • 50 Rue Lepic, 1877 – 78/79, point 12 on upper Montmartre circuit
  • 19 Rue Pierre Fontaine, 1878/79 – 1882, point 10 on lower Montmartre circuit
  • 21 Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, 1882 – 1890, not on circuit, direction indicated with dedicated map
  • 23 Rue Ballu, 1890 – 1897, not on circuit, direction indicated with dedicated map
  • 37 Rue Victor Massé, 1897 – 1912, point 13 on lower Montmartre circuit
  • 6 Boulevard de Clichy, 1912 – 1917, not on circuit
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).

Where to see the paintings mentioned in the Degas pages

On the early works portraits and horses page:

The Self-Portrait is in the Orsay Museum, Paris
The Bellelli Family portrait is in the Orsay Museum, Paris
Young Spartans Exercising is in the National Gallery, London
The At the Races, the Start, is in the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University
Race Horses in Front of The Stands is in the Orsay Museum, Paris
A Woman Seated by a Vase of Flowers is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York
The Opera Orchestra, is in the Orsay Museum, Paris

On the Paris Opera ballerinas page:

The Dance Foyer at the Opera is in the Orsay Museum, Paris
The Dance Class is in the Orsay Museum, Paris
Two Dancers on a Stage is in the Courtauld Institute in London.
In a Café aka Absinthe is in the Orsay Museum, Paris
Café Concert at the Ambassadeurs is in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon.

On the Little Dancer page:

Miss La La at The Circus Fernando is in the National Gallery, London

The Little Dancer sculpture

The original wax figure is in the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Bronze copies of the work can be seen in various museums including the Orsay Museum in Paris.

On the bathers paintings page:

The Louvre Crouching Aphrodite sculpture is in the Louvre Museum, Paris
The Tub is in the Orsay Museum, Paris
The Naked Woman in a Tub is in the Metropolitan Museum, New York
Woman Drying Her Left Foot is in the Orsay Museum, Paris
Woman Drying Her Foot is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Woman Having Her Hair Combed is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Woman Combing Her Hair is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Woman Combing Her Hair is in the Orsay Museum, Paris
After the Bath: Naked Woman Rubbing her Neck is in the Orsay Museum, Paris.
Woman at Her Toilette is in the Art Institute of Chicago
Dancers in Blue is in the Orsay Museum, Paris.

Infographic: Degas studios, apartments and major works in the Pigalle area of Montmartre

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.