French painter and sculptor. Known for his ability to capture movement, he devoted himself to lively, informal studies (often using pastels) of ballet, horse racing, and young women working. From the 1890s he turned increasingly to sculpture, modelling figures in wax in a fluent, naturalistic style. Although he had links with Impressionism, his work was in many ways quite distinct from the movement, favouring carefully draughted compositions executed in a studio environment.
Degas studied under a pupil of Ingres and worked in Italy in the 1850s, painting classical themes. In 1861 he met Manet, and exhibited regularly with the Impressionists 1874–86. His characteristic style soon emerged, showing the influence of Japanese prints and photography in inventive compositions and unusual viewpoints, as in Woman with Chrysanthemums (1865; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). He was the first major sculptor to view his subjects (mainly female dancers) through an objective dispassionate eye, focusing on movement and light, and capturing momentary poses in a way that anticipated action photography, as in The Little Dancer (1881; Tate Gallery, London).
Degas entered the École des Beaux-Arts in 1885 and in that year was introduced to the aged Ingres, of whom, in his regard for draughtsmanship, he was a lifelong follower. He travelled in Italy 1855–58, making a careful study of the early Renaissance masters. He first attempted figure compositions on conventional lines, as in the several versions of his Young Spartans, but after 1865 gave up ‘history’ and devoted himself to scenes of contemporary life and portraiture. Racecourse scenes were followed in the 1870s by the superb paintings of the theatre and especially of the ballet, viewed in rehearsal, from the wings or from the auditorium, for which he is celebrated.
A visit to his brothers at New Orleans (where his mother's family had settled after the Revolution) produced an interesting departure in his view of the Cotton Exchange, 1873 (Musée de Pau). In this decade he also exhibited with the Impressionists, having associated with Monet, Renoir and Sisley in their meetings at the Café Guerbois before the Franco-Prussian War (in which he served in a battery). While he is often termed an Impressionist he was in many ways quite separate from the group. He had no great interest in landscape or in painting direct from nature. The representation of objects by areas of divided colour and without outline offended the draughtsman in him, while he believed in a carefully planned form of composition to which the Impressionist method was alien.
Degas delighted in and experimented with many media, using oil, watercolour, pastel, etching, monotype, and aquatint, though it was in pastel that he produced his most brilliant effects of colour. The inventive composition of his works, often angled like a camera snapshot, introduced a departure from the conventional symmetry and balance of traditional painting.
From middle age onwards he tended to concentrate increasingly on the study of women, adding to his dancers, in the 1880s, remarkable pastels and drawings of the ‘femme au tub’. Failing sight turned him to sculpture, which he called a ‘blind man's art’, and his small bronzes of dancers or horses are of great beauty. Degas lived a somewhat isolated life, and was not well known during his lifetime; his importance as a late 19th- and early 20th-century artist emerged only after his death. One of his most noted pupils was the English painter Walter Sickert.
Degas, (Hilaire Germain) Edgar
Degas, Edgar Four Ballerinas
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