Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917) was a French painter, sculptor, printmaker and draftsman. He is regarded as one of the founder of Impressionism. Yet, he saw himself as Realist. He is a classical painter of modern life.

His subject matter included dancers (over half of his works depict them), racecourse, nudes, portraits. His themes were the depiction of movement and human isolation.

Degas was born in Paris to a Creole mother from New Orleans and a French banker. His father expected him to go to law school and Degas enrolled, but made little progress on his studies. In 1855 he was admitted to art school, where he received a classical education that brought him closer to his wish to become a history painter. A chance meeting with Edouard Manet made him switch to contemporary subject matter.

After the death of his father and the discovery of the huge business debt of his brother, Degas was for the first time dependent on art sales. As the traditional Salons had proven dissatisfying for his purposes he engaged in a group working on organizing an independent exhibition scene. The group and its work was soon dubbed Impressionists and produced very to the dislike of the rather conservative Degas tumults and scandals. Yet, it was the phase in his life he created the best work and his financial situation improved  so that he could start collect art work again by artists he admired like Manet, Pissarro, Cezanne, Gauguin, van Gogh, Ingres, Delacroix, Daumier, El Greco.

He was a difficult character with an argumentative nature and an anti-Semite; so much so that he broke with all his Jewish friends after the Dreyfus Affaire. He ceased working approx. 1912 and died lonely and almost blind in 1917.

Though Degas is generally described as an Impressionist, he never took up the Impressionists’ habit to paint outside, nor did he set his colors and brush strokes the way they did. What makes him an Impressionist more than a member of any other art style however is the choice of his subject matter found in ordinary life, his off center compositions and his experiments with color and form. His work shows a great respect for the old masters as well as his interest in Japanese prints and their compositional principles. It often hints at a narrative content, but in a highly ambiguous way. He used unusual viewpoints, vivid colors, broad brushstrokes and awkwardly cropped his figures. Often his paintings seem snapshot like, pointing to his love of the new medium photography.

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