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Edgar Degas: Facts, Famous Paintings & Drawings

Instructor: Ninamarie Ochoa
Known for his famous paintings of Parisian life and ballet dancers, French artist Edgar Degas helped establish the Impressionist movement in art during the nineteenth century.

Who is Edgar Degas?

French painter Edgar Degas was a contemporary of Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh, and his stunning paintings and pastels of ballet dancers are as famous as Monet's Water Lilies or Van Gogh's Starry Night. His works are immortalized in posters and calendars adorning dorm rooms and bedrooms all over the world, and he helped found the school of Impressionism.

Edgar Degas, The Ballet Class (1871-74)
Edgar Degas, The Ballet Class (1871-74)

Childhood

Edgar Degas (whose given name was Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas) was born to parents Célestine Musson De Gas and Augustine De Gas on July 19, 1834 in Paris, France. He was eldest of five children, and his family was fairly wealthy.

The spelling of the family's last name was considered somewhat pretentious, and by the time he was thirty, Edgar Degas abandoned 'De Gas' and returned to a traditional spelling of his surname. After his mother died when he was thirteen, Degas looked to his father as his primary influence.

Artistic Beginnings

Degas benefitted from his family's wealth and was given both an excellent education and opportunities to travel in his youth. He began painting early in life--even turning a room in his father's home into a studio. His father, like most parents, had strong opinions about what career his son would pursue, and expected Edgar to become a lawyer. Although he enrolled in law school, the young Degas barely applied himself to his studies, and continued working as a copyist (someone who studies works of art and produces copies of them) at the Louvre Museum.

In 1855, Edgar Degas was accepted to the Ecolé des Beaux-Arts (The College of Fine Arts), where he studied painting. This sparkling resume grew even more when, in 1856, Degas left France for three years to travel throughout Italy, studying Renaissance art. It was because of this classical training that Degas actually first thought that he'd become a historical painter.

Painting and Adulthood

In 1870, the Franco-Prussian War began, and Edgar enlisted. During his training, though, it was discovered that Degas suffered from poor eyesight. Much like fellow French painter Claude Monet, Degas struggled with his declining eyesight throughout the rest of his life.

Degas traveled in 1872 to New Orleans, Louisiana, and stayed in the United States for about a year. While in New Orleans, Degas broke from his classical training and began painting from his life in Louisiana--friends, family, and public scenes. In fact, the only Degas painting to be purchased by a museum during his lifetime was from this period: A Cotton Office in New Orleans (1873).

Edgar Degas, A Cotton Office in New Orleans (1873)
Edgar Degas, A Cotton Office in New Orleans (1873)

After Edgar returned to Paris in 1873, his father died, and Degas discovered that his brother had fallen into enormous debt. Generously and dutifully, Edgar Degas began painting prolifically in 1874 to help pay off his brother's debt. His iconic paintings of ballerinas were produced during this period, and his decision to paint dancers resulted from popular interest in ballet. (Like any good businessman, Degas produced what would sell best!)

Artistic Style

When Degas began painting professionally in 1874, he joined a collective of artists that banded together to exhibit their works independently. This group became known as the Impressionists, and included such renowned painters as Monet.

From the start, however, Degas felt that he had little in common with the other Impressionists in the group. To begin with, he only painted interior scenes, and the others were largely landscape painters. And in terms of style, Degas openly rejected the spontaneity that characterized Impressionism. He considered himself a realist, and stated that his paintings were produced with careful and meticulous effort, not impulsiveness. Due to differences and conflicts among the artists, the group dissolved in 1886.

Despite this, scholars consider Edgar Degas among the key Impressionists for his bold brushstrokes, vivid color palettes, and increasingly abstract style. Focusing on contemporary scenes of Parisian life, Degas painted images of movement, with great attention to the kinetic lines of the human body. In the painting below, you can see how Degas conveyed the dazzling immediacy of the moment in his works.

Edgar Degas, Dancer Taking a Bow (The Star) (c. 1878)
Edgar Degas, Dancer Taking a Bow (The Star) (c. 1878)

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