Who was Edgar Degas?
A man of many talents, Edgar Degas was a famous French Impressionist painter who depicted the Parisian life in beautiful images. Edgar had a fascination for human figures and many of his paintings featured dancers in unusual positions. During his course at École des Beaux-Arts, which was a popular art school in France, he spent three years travelling in Italy where he studied and copied the arts of Da Vinci and Michelangelo. After he returned to Paris, he started making portraits; however his innovation with techniques did not go well with Salon, a group of powerful artists who presided over art exhibitions. In the next few years, Edgar was part of a group of avant-garde artists who dwelled on how painters could take a modern approach to art. With the outbreak of Franco-Prussian War, Edgar enrolled as a National Guard. But, he escaped much of the bloodbath that followed for the establishment of the Third Republic by travelling to New Orleans. After he returned to Paris, Edgar along with his fellow avant-garde artists formed the Society of Independent Artists, a group which aimed to exhibit their art without the control of Salon. This group came to be known as ‘Impressionists’ for their style of art, although Degas himself was more comfortable with the term ‘Realist’ or Independent’.
Childhood & Early Life
Edgar Degas was born on 19 July 1834, in Paris France, to Augustin De Gas and Célestine Musson De Gas. His father was a banker while his mother was a Creole from New Orleans, America.
Edgar’s parents were musically inclined with her mother being an amateur opera singer and his father arranging for recitals of musicians at their homes. To pursue his passion for music Edgar went to Lycee Louis-le-Grand. This school was known for its classical education.
In 1853, at the age of 18, young Edgar was permitted to copy the art of the great masters in Louvre. This was a common practice in those days where would-be painters developed their technique by trying to imitate the works of the masters. Edgar produced copies of works of Raphael and of the works of contemporary painters such as Delacroix and Ingres.
In 1855, Edgar took admission in Ecole des Beaux-Arts to study art but he left the school after one year. After leaving the school, he spent the next three year traveling, painting and studying in Italy. He made copies of the works of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. It was here that he learnt the technique of classical linearity which is one of the most important aspects of his painting.
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In 1859, Edgar came back to Paris and started making portraits and depicted large historical scenes. He produced these works before Salon, a group of influential French artists who controlled the entire scenario of public exhibitions. Edgar’s technique met with a frown as his innovative ideas did not conform to the traditional style of Salon.
In 1862, Edgar met painter Edouard Manet and a healthy rivalry developed between the two of them. Both of them shared disdain for the presiding art scenario and wanted to explore modern techniques and subject matter.
In 1868, Edgar and Manet along with a group of other artists formed an avant-garde group which was against the conventional ideologies of Salon. It was a tumultuous time in the history of France with the advent of Franco-Prussian war. Being a nationalist Edgar signed up for French National Guard. However, he avoided much of the bloodshed that happened for the establishment of Third Republic as he was travelling to New Orleans.
After he came back from New Orleans, Edgar along with his fellow avant-garde artists formed the Society of Independent Artists, a group which wanted to exhibit their art without the control of the powerful Salon. This group eventually came to be known as the ‘Impressionists’. But Edgar was more comfortable with the term ‘realist’ for his technique.
In 1874, Society of Independent Artists organized its first exhibition. The main subject of Edgar’s paintings was women like ballet dancers, laundresses and milliners. However, the approach was quite radical for its times.
In the next 12 years, the Impressionists organized eight exhibitions, with Degas exhibiting his work at all the exhibitions. Some of his most famous paintings of the era were: ‘Woman Ironing’, ‘The Dancing Class’, and ‘Dancers Practicing in the Bar’. There was a deep underlying classical influence in his art work, due to his academic training. This technique was in contrast with the Impressionists who concentrated more on colours and surface texture.
In 1880, Edgar sculpted the famous ‘The Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer’. Critics were bedazzled by its form, and some called it brilliant.
In 1886, at the final exhibition of the Impressionists, Edgar exhibited a group of paintings which showed nude women in various stages of bathing. This stirred quite a controversy, and while some appreciated his bold but honest approach, others called it ‘ugly’.
During the 1890s Edgar gained an unfavourable position in Paris over the ‘Dreyfus Affair’. A young Jewish captain was imprisoned in the context of spying and treason. Although evidences suggested that Dreyfus was innocent, he was released after 10 years as there were strong anti-Semitic feelings against him. Edgar supported the anti-Semitic movements and many of his friends and followers were taken aback by his ideologies. This caused a rift between him and avant-garde artist friends.
In the later years of his life, Edgar cut down on his painting and became an avid art collector. His art influenced many young painters of the 20th century including the famous Pablo Picasso.
Edgar’s painting ‘Frieze of Dancers’ which was produced in 1895 remains his most celebrated work. It is said that the rhythmic movement in the painting especially the flow or motion which happens because the eyes rotate or roam to capture the entire painting, makes it unique.
Some of his other notable works include: 'The Bellelli Family', 'Woman with Chrysanthemums', 'Chanteuse de Café', and 'At the Milliner's'
Personal Life & Legacy
Edgar never married, but led a colourful life courting many women in his days. One of his famous affairs was with Mary Cassatt, who was also an intimate friend.
Edgar died on 27 September 1917, in Paris, at the age of 83.