Edgar Degas (July 19, 1834- September 27, 1917) was born in Paris, France. At age eleven, Degas began his schooling with enrollment in the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, graduating in 1853 with a baccalauréat in literature. By eighteen he had turned a room in his home into an artist’s studio and had begun making copies in the Louvre. In April 1855, Degas received admission to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he studied drawing with Louis Lamothe, under whose guidance he flourished, following the style of Ingres. In 1872, after the Franco-Prussian War, Degas began an extended stay in New Orleans, Louisiana, where his brother René and a number of other relatives lived. One of Degas’ New Orleans works, depicting a scene at The Cotton Exchange at New Orleans, garnered favorable attention back in France, and was his only work purchased by a museum (that of Pau) during his lifetime.
Degas has his own distinct style, one reflecting his deep respect for the old masters. He was also a collector of Japanese prints, whose compositional principles influenced his work, as did the vigorous realism of popular illustrators. Although famous for horses and dancers, Degas began with conventional historical paintings, although his treatment of such subjects became progressively less idealized. During his early career, Degas also painted portraits of individuals and groups. 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. In many subsequent paintings, dancers were shown backstage or in rehearsal, emphasizing their status as professionals doing a job. He urged other artists to paint “real life” instead of traditional mythological or historical paintings, and the few literary scenes he painted were modern and of highly ambiguous content. As his subject matter changed, so, too, did Degas’ technique. The dark palette that bore the influence of Dutch painting gave way to the use of vivid colors and bold brushstrokes. Paintings read as “snapshots,” freezing moments of time to portray them accurately, imparting a sense of movement. 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. His interest in portraiture led him 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.
Later in his life, 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 a 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.
Recognized as an important artist by the end of his life, Degas is now considered “one of the founders of Impressionism”. Though his work crossed many stylistic boundaries, his involvement with the other major figures of Impressionism and their exhibitions, his dynamic paintings, and sketches of everyday life and activities, and his bold color experiments served to finally tie him to the Impressionist movement as one of its greatest early artists. His paintings, pastels, drawings, and sculpture—most of the latter were not intended for exhibition and were discovered only after his death—are on prominent display in many museums.
While he is known to have been working in pastel as late as the end of 1907, and is believed to have continued making sculpture as late as 1910, he apparently ceased working in 1912, when the impending demolition of his longtime residence on the rue Victor Massé forced a wrenching move to quarters on the Boulevard de Clichy. He never married and spent the last years of his life, nearly blind, restlessly wandering the streets of Paris before dying in 1917. Degas’ last years were sad and lonely, especially as he outlived many of his closest friends.