Many of history’s greatest impressionists rose to prominence throughout the late 19th century. At the time, impressionism was an art movement that originated in Paris, France, and became increasingly relevant during the 1870’s and the 1880’s. Impressionist paintings are generally characterized by small yet visible brush strokes, and artists often put emphasis on the accurate depiction of light, movement, and the passage of time.
Ironically, one important figure in the development of impressionism in France did not like being called an “impressionist”. If you do some research on the life and times of Edgar Degas, who was a French artist that became known for his paintings, sculptures, and drawings, you will find that he preferred to be called a “realist” even though his work was more accurately categorized as impressionism rather than any other movement.
Born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar de Gas on the 19th of July, 1834 in Paris, France, Edgar Degas was the eldest son of French banker Augustin de Gas and his American wife Célestine. Theirs was a middle class family that more than a few historians have come to describe as one that certainly had pretentions of nobility. For many years, the family name was spelled “de Gas”, with the preposition “de” suggesting that they were a wealthy family of landowning aristocrats even though they were not. Edgar chose to revert to the original spelling of his surname when he became an adult.
As a young boy, Edgar exhibited intelligence and artistic brilliance. He started painting at a very young age, and even received a baccalauréat in literature from the Lycée Louis-le-Grand when he graduated in 1853. He was only 18 years old. Known formerly as the Collège de Clermont, the Lycée renamed after King Louis XIV still holds a reputation of being one of the most prestigious and most rigorous secondary schools in Paris today.
Despite having a growing interest in pursuing a career in the arts, Degas obeyed his father’s wishes by going to law school. He enrolled at the Faculty of Law at the University of Paris, but the study of law was never his true passion. In 1855, Degas met French neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who gave him advice that he would never forget:
“Draw lines, young man, and still more lines, both from life and from memory, and you will become a good artist.”
Degas revered Ingres, and the young impressionist painter drew inspiration from him. By April, Degas was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts, where he studied drawing in the style of Ingres under the tutelage of the renowned French academic artist Louis Lamothe.
In 1856, Degas travelled to Italy, where he stayed with his aunt’s family in Naples for three years. While in Italy, he drew and painted numerous copies of the works by Michelangelo, Raphael, and other Renaissance artists. His style, however, stood apart from conventional practice by turning altarpiece details such as a head or a secondary figure into a portrait on its own.
Shortly after returning to France, Degas moved into a studio in Paris. He began painting The Bellelli Family, which was an oil painting on canvas that depicted his aunt, her husband, and their two young daughters. It was intended for exhibition in the Salon de Paris, which was the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France, but it remained unfinished until 1867.
Degas also set out to make a name for himself as a painter. Some of his early works were large portraits that depicted family members and historical scenes. These included:
Although he continued to exhibit annually at the Salon, he stopped working on history paintings and began turning his attention towards more contemporary subject matter. This was evidenced by his submission of Steeplechase–The Fallen Jockey, during the Salon of 1866. His decision to change his art was influenced by the examples of famous French artist Édouard Manet, whom Degas met two years earlier at the Louvre.
Degas and Manet soon developed a friendly rivalry, with the former beginning to share the latter’s disdain for the current art establishment. By 1868, Degas and Manet became members of a group of prominent avant-garde artists that gathered frequently at the Café Guerbois in order to discuss the ways in which artists could help engage the modern world. Some of the other notable artists who were part of this group included Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley.
When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, Degas enlisted in the National Guard. His patriotic duties as an enlisted soldier left him very little time to paint. During rifle training, it was discovered that Degas had problems with his eyesight. After the war, which dragged on for about two years, the young impressionist painter travelled to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he stayed with his brother René and a few other relatives lived.
During his stay in New Orleans, Degas stayed with his Creole uncle, Michel Musson, in a house along the historic Esplanade Avenue, which was northwest from the Mississippi River. He was set to return to Europe in January of 1873, after the American Civil War, but when his trip was delayed, he decided to start painting scenes from his uncle’s cotton business.
One of the pieces that he painted while he was in New Orleans was A Cotton Office in New Orleans. The oil painting depicted the time when his uncle’s cotton business went bankrupt during an economic collapse. It gained popularity in France, and was later bought by the Pau. It became his only work to be purchased by a museum during his lifetime.
Degas finally returned to Paris later that same year, coming home to several misfortunes. A year after his return, in 1874, his father passed away. He also learned that his brother René amassed enormous debts.
In order to keep the reputation of his family intact, Degas sold his house along with an art collection that he inherited and used the money to pay off his brother’s business debts. As he was now financially dependent on the sales of his artwork, he produced many of his greatest works during this period.
No longer wanting to become associated with the Salon, Degas, along with Monet, Sisley, and several other painters, formed the Société Anonyme des Artistes, or the Society of Independent Artists, with the intention of putting on exhibitions that were free of the Salon’s control. Between 1874 and 1886, the group mounted eight art shows, which later became known as the Impressionist Exhibitions.
For a time, the Society received both praise and criticism for its exhibitions. Degas exhibited his work in all but one of the Impressionist Exhibitions, despite his aversion towards being regarded as an “impressionist”. Some of his more popular works during this period include:
However, conflicts between him and other members of the Society slowly led to the group’s disbandment. Degas had very little in common with Monet and other landscape painters. He would mock other members for painting outdoors. He pushed for the inclusion of non-impressionist artists in the group, and he disliked how his colleagues sought fame and advertising through the exhibitions. The growing resentment and disenchantment within the group resulted to its abolishment in 1886.
At one point in his illustrious career, Degas forayed into the world of sculpting. He did this in 1881, when he exhibited The Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, which was a nearly life-sized wax sculpture that had real hair and was dressed in a cloth tutu. The sculpture is the only known example of the Impressionist painter’s work in the medium. It drew praise from some critics for its extraordinary realism, but others denounced it for its shocking appearance.
Degas lived well into the 20th century. Many historians believe that even though he no longer painted during his later years, he continued creating sculptures until 1910. He also developed an interest in photography, often taking pictures of his friends by lamplight. Some of his other photographs were used for reference in some of his drawings and paintings.
As the years passed, Degas went into a life of isolation due in part to his belief that a painter could have no personal life. Many of his friends deserted him after his anti-Semitic leanings came to fore. The misogynist overtones that were present in his sexualized depictions of women in his portraits also served to alienate him from modern critics.
All throughout his life, Degas received both contempt and admiration for his work. Degas never married, and spent the rest of his life as a nearly blind recluse, wandering the streets of Paris until his death on September 27, 1917. He died at the age of 83, and left a mixed legacy that has served to recognize him as one of the greatest Impressionist painters of all time.