"No art is less spontaneous than mine," said a French Painter called Edgar Degas. "What I do is the result of reflection and the study of the great masters."
Though Edgar Degas participated in seven of the eight Impressionist Exhibitions, he never had much respect for Impressionism or the Impressionist artists; he preferred line and contour skills over color effects, urban scenes over pastoral ones, and studio painting over air adventures.
"You know what I think of people who work out in the open," he said. "If I were the government, I would have a special brigade of gendarmerie to keep an eye on artists who paint landscapes from nature. Oh, I don't mean to kill anyone, I would be quite content with a little bird shot now and then as a warning."
Edgar Degas was born in Paris on 19 January 1834 to wealthy, upper class parents. His father, Augustin de Gas, was a Neopolitan banker, and his mother, Celestine Musson, was from New Orleans. He had four younger siblings, two brothers and two sisters. From an early age, Degas showed an interest in art, and his parents indulged him by allowing him to set up a studio in the house. It was understood, that this was just a hobby; people of his class didn't become artists, they went to have a classical education at elite schools like the Lycee Louis-le-Grand, then to Law College, and ventured into a money making enterprise.
Degas, however, was principally interested in making pictures. He went to Law College for two years, and then decided that the experience was enough. He dropped out at the age of twenty, and began a serious study of art under Louis Lamothe. As a former student of Ingres, Lamothe placed emphasis on drawing, and this went down very well with Degas's own idea of art.
Ingres (whom he met through the family of his school friend Paul Valpincon, and who told him to "follow the lines"), Delacroix, and Japanese Prints were to remain strong influences on his style.
His excellent progress under Lamothe, enabled him to pass the entrance exam to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1855, and the year after, now that he was on his way to becoming a full-fledged artist, he made the requisite study tour to Italy. He ended up staying there for the next three years, visiting Naples, Capodimonte, Rome, and Florence, and closely studied for the Renaissance Masters; he was particularly keen on the works of Mantegna and Uccello.
On his return, he concentrated on developing his own art style. Unlike most of his artist friends and acquaintances, he wasn't burdened with any financial concerns; i.e., not until his father's death several years later, when he had to fall back on his art earnings, sell off much his art collection, and adjust to living in straight circumstances. For now, he could lead the leisurely existence of a gentleman artist, which actually meant that he worked very hard, diligently studied the paintings at the Louver, and eventually became a regular participant in the annual Salon exhibitions.
"No art is less spontaneous than mine," he once said. "What I do is the result of reflection and the study of the great masters."
His earlier paintings featuring historical themes, as well as individual and group portraits, were mostly oil on canvas, and conventional enough, but not in the idealized way that was popular at that time. Not that he didn't try, but ultimately, he had little patience in inflating ordinary egos with false mythological pretensions. He became more intrigued with showing real people in real settings, as long as it didn't take him out of the studio; i.e., if he didn't get models, he worked from memory and later from photographs. The subject matters that interested him were people in cafes, people visiting the opera or performing in it, women working as Washerwomen, and most well-known of all, onstage ballet dancers and behind scenes.
There was a slight disruption in his life during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, which required him to give up painting for its duration; it's always annoying to give up one's long-term passion for other men's short-term nationalism, but, when he wasn't painting, Degas was a very conventional sort of person, and probably entered the fray in all sincerity.
Degas and the Impressionists
After the war, Degas went to live for a while in New Orleans, where his brother called Rene was managing the family cotton business; but America was clearly not for him, and he returned to Paris. He once again immersed himself in the artistic community, but now stopped bothering with the Salon exhibitions; his work had developed beyond their conventional tastes. He was friendly with a bunch of other radical painters, equally unwelcome at the Salon, and they decided, why wait for the stick-in-the-muds to appreciate us, let's start appreciating ourselves. And hence, in 1874, they got together and organized what became known as the first Impressionist Exhibition.
The general public, after a lifetime of the dreary brownness of smooth, godly classicism, were baffled by the bright colors, the peculiar brushstrokes, and the even peculiarly ordinary themes of the Impressionists. Monet came in for special criticism for his painting "Impression: Sunrise" - one look at it, and the riled art critic Louis Leroy wrote in his paper, Le Charivari, "Impression I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it - and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape."
The group was scoffingly called "the Impressionists", and the name stuck. Degas continued exhibiting with the Impressionists, and staunchly sharing the criticism that came their way, but their mutual relations were not easy. Degas had never been a group person, and he considered himself to have his own special style. While he had certainly began using bolder strokes and brighter colors since their association, he was scathing about almost all their ideas, insistent on his own, and was prone to a rather acerbic wit to get his opinions across.
"Monet's pictures are always too drafty for me," he announced.
Still, such was his talent for painting and organizing, that nobody shoved him into a haystack for airing his personality.
Degas after the Impressionists
The Impressionists broke up after 1886, and Degas began keeping more and more to himself, concentrating on his photography and sculpture, along with his painting. He began favoring pastels over oils, mixing them with different media, and experimenting with a variety of techniques, and it was now, curiously enough, that his work began to show distinctly Impressionist qualities. Even more curiously, these beautiful and luminous works - many of which show nude women in intimate moments, bathing, combing their hair, etc., are considered by some modern art critics as proof of Degas's misogynist outlook - now found acceptance with the public. Degas found himself considered now as "an important" artist. He, of course, had always held that opinion himself, and showed no particular delight in the honors and awards, which were so belatedly heaped in his way; in fact, he refused most of them.
Degas also produced small-sized sculptures, as linearly perfect as his drawings, but these were never displayed to the public during his lifetime.
Photography had always been his great passion, but he seriously began experimenting in it after buying his first Kodak camera in 1895. He did 'trick' landscape shots, but predictably, turned soon to studio shots, with the difficulties of arranged lighting. His portraits of family, friends, and acquaintances are intriguingly composed. Many of the portraits feature his close friends called the Halevys.
In 1894, a French Army Officer of Jewish descent, Alfred Dreyfuss, was falsely accused of treason, and this caused a great uproar in French Society. Degas took the part of the anti-Dreyfuss crowd, and revealed himself to be rabidly anti-Semitic. Since he couldn't do anything in halves, he topped his unsavory behavior by breaking off contacts with all Jews, including his childhood friends, the Halevys, and his long time art colleagues, Renoir and Cezanne.
In his later years, Degas's eyesight began failing. He had never married; he doesn't appear to have had a very high opinion of women, and his art gave him enough trouble, and his immediate family had dispersed, and he had broken off his bond with old friends. He lived a pretty much lonely existence until his death, at the age of 83, on 27 September 1917.
Some of his well-known paintings:
1. The Belleli Family (1859)
2. Head of a Young Woman (1867)
3. Estelle Musson (1872-1873)
4. A Carriage at the Races (1873)
5. Absinthe (1876)
6. Dancers Practicing at the Bar (1877)
7. Diego Martelli (1879)
8. Ballerina and Lady with Fan (1885)