Edgar Degas the realist painter of movement and contemporary Paris
Who was Edgar Degas?
Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917) was from a rich Parisian family. His father was born in Naples and Degas, for the first part of his artistic career at least, travelled regularly to Italy. His mother was from New Orleans and Degas visited America in the early 1870s.
Whilst the family wanted him to become a lawyer it was not long before the young Degas was enrolled in Paris’ best known arts school — l’ École des Beaux-Arts (Academy of Fine Arts).
Degas was never a struggling artist. Throughout his career he always had the economic freedom to choose his own style and subject matter.
He was active from the 1850s to the early years of the 20th century.
Character – “solitary and uncompromising…”
Degas, though not unsociable, was, according to Sandra Orienti, “solitary and uncompromising…”
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.
As an artist he was obsessive — we see him returning to the same themes and subjects again and again.
His 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 Montmartre. He lived and worked for decades within a very restricted area.
What influenced Degas’ art?
Degas was thoroughly grounded in art history and he admired the old masters.
At the Academy of Fine Arts he received an academic artistic education. He knew all of the traditional art techniques: perspective, proportion, composition, modelling anatomy, light and line.
Degas admired the French painter Ingres; 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.
Whilst practising in that great museum he met another exceptional painter; Edouard Manet. I believe that one of the ancient sculptures Degas saw there — the Louvre Crouching Aphrodite directly influenced his later nude female bather paintings.
Degas travelled extensively, especially in Italy, where he saw masterpieces from the Classical, Hellenistic and Renaissance eras.
He may have had a reputation for arrogance and inflexibility but he was open to new techniques, new technology, novelty and innovation. He was prepared to explore and exploit developments in photography and monotype printing if they showed potential.
Degas, like many of his contemporaries was intrigued and influenced by Japanese prints. He paid particular attention to the way Japanese artists sometimes cropped figures. Cropping is where the artist only shows a part of the subject as though they were entering or leaving the scene. It suggests that more action is happening elsewhere beyond the canvas margins and that what we see is just a part of a larger whole. He also saw how sometimes the main subject was not always presented front and centre.
Please see the Theo and Vincent van Gogh page for more on Japanese print influences.
Was Degas an Impressionist?
Like many artists of his day he 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 what a painting should look like.
Names which are now well known to us such as Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Morisot, and Cézanne were then regularly refused wall space.
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 they would organise their own arts shows in direct competition with the Salon.
This group came to be known as the Impressionists and its first show was in 1874.
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.
What was Degas’ style?
Degas considered himself a realist or an independent. His scenes were set in the modern environment of Paris and Montmartre and occasionally in the leisure or entertainment settings of horse races or café concerts.
The artificial contained environments where he sought to execute his work were the Paris Opera and his many home studios. He acknowledged and respected the classical traditions of his craft but wished to represent the world as he saw it in his own way.
What did he paint?
His objective: to capture movement
Most of all he was interested in capturing and distilling movement. Degas also executed many small scale wax sculptures in his endless and relentless quest to represent and capture motion. The sculpture informed his paintings and the paintings talked to the sculpture in a restless, unending, inconclusive dialogue in Degas’ mind.
Degas mastered oils, watercolour and essence before settling on pastel as his medium of choice.
In the staged sets of the workspace, he strove to catch the various momentary and sometimes surprising postures of the body in motion. In order to observe how it maintained its natural equilibrium, Degas forced his models to pose in uncomfortable positions; on the edge of balance, stretching or bent double. The models, protesting their discomfort, held still whilst the artist coolly observed and worked.
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
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
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