Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas ( 1834 - 1917 )
Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas was born in Paris on July 19, 1834. He was born to a family of aristocrats, and like every privileged child at the time, he was exposed to the finer things in life. Ballet, opera, art, music were all part of his staple. His father, a banker, had aspirations of seeing Edgar as a lawyer. Degas even enrolled in law school for a brief period after secondary school, but fate had things planned.
Even as a boy, Degas was extraordinarily insightful. He found in the brush and palate and eloquent means of conveying his observations to the rest of the World (1). His early years in art were spent idolizing the French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Ingres's influence steered him to work towards a classical draftsmanship. The Classical skills that he was exposed to at this period of his career were to prove invaluable to him. This classical background allowed his later works to acquire a definite structure, organization and impeccable balance and clarity of outline. In pursuit of his idol, Degas began his artistic studies with a pupil of Ingres, Louis Lamothes(3). École des Beaux Arts in Paris was his priming ground. It was there that he was taught the classical skills that were to serve him so well later in life. A few years after his enrollment at the École, Degas felt a deep dissatisfaction in his work. He slowly veered away from the conventions of classical painting. Realism was unable to cope with the flood of ideas and emotions that Degas brought with him to the canvas. It was as if conventionalism has become a bottleneck, constricting his thought process. In 1854, Degas left the École and went to Italy where he studied Italian art for 5 years. It was the late renaissance period of art that caught his eye. (4). He traveled to Naples, Florence and Rome, all major centers of Renaissance art. He studied the works and techniques of renaissance masters like Boticcelli and Poussin. It was from here that his paintings developed a historical and almost biblical theme to them.
Degas finally left for Paris in 1860. The first few years in Paris were spent developing his influences from Italy. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Degas receive patronage very early in his career. His talent was recognized and appreciated by both the state and private patrons. He therefore did not have to struggle financially, as many other painters of his time were forced to do. The year of his return marked the greatest achievement of Degas's budding career, The Salon Art Festival in Paris (5). It was here that Degas displayed his historical paintings and became an instant star in the art Fraternity. An example of his popularity was his painting based on biblical history, 'Daughter of Jephthah’, which was based on an incident from the Old Testament (6). The painting garnered rave reviews, and to date is regarded as one of Degas's finest.
Degas's classical background allowed him to draw and paint human figures of superb quality. He applied his skills towards painting portraits for families, including many for his own. An example of his portraiture is 'The Belleli Family' which he painted in 1860. Soon however, Degas's dissatisfaction with the inherent inadequacies of classical art reared itself again. He was desperately seeking the outlet to his emotions that realism denied him. It was at this stage of his life that he encountered Édouard Manet. Manet was a pioneer of the then fledgling Impressionist movement. It was in this first meeting with Manet, one that was unplanned and purely by accident, that Degas was thrust head forward into Impressionism – a form which was to harbor him, or, as many would say, a form that he harbored, for the rest of his career.
Degas’s view of impressionism was different from other painters of his era. He was not fascinated by nature and the outdoors, he would much rather observe the human condition and with his brush strokes, incorporate it’s intricacies into every one of his paintings. He confined himself to working in studios, often staying indoors for days at a stretch. Many critics think twice before classifying Degas as an impressionist. Indeed, he himself called himself a “realist with contemporary subjects”. It would be fair to say that in Degas’s evolution that was seen an emergence of a new, alternative impressionism.
It was in 1867 that Degas divorced himself from conventional subjects, now only of academic interest to him. He began his search for contemporary subjects that interested him. Degas found himself attracted to motion, he saw incredible depth in fluid motion, something that he felt was lacking in his previous artistic endeavors. He took full advantage of his genius at capturing movement in the selection of his subjects. Motion seemed to fit his eye as it fit his sensibilities.
One of the subjects that most caught Degas’s fancy at this later stage of his career was Racehorses. There are numerous accounts of his obsession with the subject, most accurately reflected in the volume and quality of his work on the subject. Noted art historian Paul-Andre Lemoisne was said to have catalogued upto 100 paintings on horses from 1870 to 1900. This did not include numerous wax models and castes of various horses. ‘Race Horses’, arguably the most famous fruit of this equestrian obsession, now rests in the Philadelphia Art Museum.
Degas’s other passion, one that he was most famous for, was ballet. More accurately, it was the ballet dancer that fascinated him. Many of his subjects are either young ballet dancers whom he brought to his studio, or scenes involving dancers at the opera – these painted purely from memory. One of his most famous paintings is ‘Dance class at the Opera’ which he painted in 1872. The painting, which now hangs at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris is a perfect example of Degas’s fluid style. The scene radiates a youthful, innocent tranquil that envelopes the viewers eye. This was Degas’s special quality – to make movement look incredibly delicate, yet precise and fluid.
Another fascinating aspect about Degas was his relationship with women. He was, and is to this day, regarded as a misogynist. However, it is difficult not to notice his preoccupation with the female form. This apparent dichotomy has puzzled critics and admirers alike. The ‘Woman’ has been the subject of some of his most defining work. He is able to bring out from within his female subjects a quality that the lesser, more mortal admirer can only marvel at. Les repasseuses , or ‘ Woman Ironing’ is one of Degas’s most famous feminine subjects. It was painted in 1888, and rests among many other Degas masterpieces at the Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
If Manet was the father of impressionism, and Monet was it’s heart, Degas was unquestionably it’s eyes and it’s mind. He gave impressionism a critical quality that offered the art lover an introspective experience every time he witnessed one of Degas’s masterpieces. An apt description of Degas’s character is given by the following anecdote from From Robert Hughes’s "Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists"
"In his late years Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas was chatting in his studio with one of his few friends and many admirers, English painter Walter Richard Sickert. They decided to visit a café. Young Sickert got ready to summon a fiacre, a horse-drawn cab. Degas objected. "Personally, I don't like cabs. You don't see anyone. That's why I love to ride on the omnibus-you can look at people. We were created to look at one another, weren't we?"
Degas spent many years of his career painting scenes from
history. Even though the subjects seemed inadequate to him, they were some of
his most popular paintings. An example of his popularity was his painting based
on biblical history, 'Daughter of Jephthah’, which was based on an incident
from the Old Testament. The painting garnered rave reviews, and to date is
regarded as one of Degas's finest.
An example of his portraiture is 'The Belleli Family'which he painted in 1860. Degas's early years as a classical draftsman gave him the ability to paint the human form with effortless ease.
Degas's obsession with movement manifest itself in his various paintings of horses. ‘Race Horses’, arguably the most famous fruit of this equestrian obsession, now rests in the Philadelphia Art Museum.
His most famous subjects are undoubtedly the young ballerinas that caught his artistic eye in the later stages of his career.One of his most famous paintings is ‘Dance class at the Opera’ which he painted in 1872. The painting, which now hangs at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris is a perfect example of Degas’s fluid style
Degas’s apparent schizophrenic opinion of women has puzzled art critics to this day. He was a self-acknowledged misogynist and yet the female form was his favorite subject. He was able to bring out from within his female subjects a quality that the lesser, more mortal admirer can only marvel at. Les repasseuses , or ‘ Woman Ironing’ is one of Degas’s most famous feminine subjects. It was painted in 1888, and rests among many other Degas masterpieces at the Musee d'Orsay, Paris.