Edgar Degas

Famous for his work in painting, sculpture, printmaking and regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism, the French artist Edgar Degas was Born 19th July 1834 in Paris, France. He was the oldest of five children of Célestine Musson De Gas, a Creole from New Orleans, Louisiana, and Augustin De Gas, a banker. His maternal grandfather Germain Musson, was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti of French descent and had settled in New Orleans in 1810.

Degas began his schooling in 1845 enrolling in the Lycée Louis-le-Grand. His mother died when he was thirteen, and his father and grandfather became the main influences on him for the remainder of his youth. Degas began to paint early in life and became a superb draftsman. By the time he graduated from the Lycée with a baccalauréat in literature in 1853, at age 18, he had turned a room in his home into an artist’s studio. Upon graduating, he registered as a copyist in The Louvre Museum, but his father expected him to go to law school. Degas duly enrolled at the Faculty of Law of the University of Paris in November 1853. In 1855 he met Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, whom Degas revered and whose advice he never forgot: “Draw lines, young man, and still more lines, both from life and from memory, and you will become a good artist” in 1855 Degas was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts. He studied drawing there with Louis Lamothe. Early in his career, he wanted to be a history painter, a calling for which he was well prepared by his rigorous academic training and close study of classic art.

In July 1856, Degas traveled to Italy. In 1858, while staying with his aunt’s family in Naples, he made the first studies for his early masterpiece The Bellelli Family. He also drew and painted numerous copies of works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and other Renaissance artists. Degas returned to France in 1859, and moved into a large Paris studio And began painting The Bellelli Family, intended for exhibition in the Salon. He also began work on several history paintings: Alexander and Bucephalus and The Daughter of Jephthah, Sémiramis Building Babylon and Young Spartans.

In 1861 Degas visited his childhood friend Paul Valpinçon in Normandy, and made the earliest of his many studies of horses. He exhibited at the Salon for the first time in 1865, exhibiting the painting Scene of War in the Middle Ages and continued to exhibit paintings at the Salon for the next five years including “Steeplechase—The Fallen Jockey”. Degas then abruptly changed subject matter bringing the traditional methods of a history painter to bear on contemporary subject matter, he became a classical painter of modern life. This was inspired in part by Édouard Manet, whom Degas had met in 1864 (while both were copying the same Velázquez portrait in the Louvre.

During the Franco-Prussian War Degas enlisted in the National Guard, where his defense of Paris left him little time for painting. Sadly his eyesight hindered him. In 1872 Degas visited New Orleans, Louisiana, where his brother René and a number of other relatives lived. Staying at the home of his Creole uncle, Michel Musson, on Esplanade Avenue, Degas produced a number of works, including A Cotton Office in New Orleans, many depicted family members.

In 1873 Degas returned to Paris sadly though his father died in 1874. Degas also learned that his brother René had amassed enormous business debts. To preserve his family’s reputation, Degas sold his house and an art collection he had inherited, and used the money to pay off his brother’s debt. In 1874 joined a group of young artists including Monet, who were organizing an independent exhibiting society. The group soon became known as the Impressionists. Between 1874 and 1886 they mounted eight art shows, known as the Impressionist Exhibitions. However Degas deeply disliked being associated with the term “Impressionist”, which the press had coined and popularized, and insisted on including non-Impressionist artists such as Jean-Louis Forain and Jean-François Raffaëlli in the group’s exhibitions and The group was disbanded in 1886. Degas also began collecting works by artists he admired: such as El Greco, Manet, Pissarro, Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Édouard Brandon, Ingres, Delacroix, and Daumier. In the late 1880s, Degas also developed a passion for photography. Photographing many of his friends, including Renoir and Mallarmé. He also photographed dancers and nudes, which he used for reference in some of his drawings and paintings.

Much of Degas works depict dancers. These display his mastery in the depiction of movement, as do his racecourse subjects and female nudes. His portraits are notable for their psychological complexity and depiction of human isolation. Some of Degas’s work was controversial, but was generally admired for its draftsmanship. His La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans, or Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, which he displayed at the sixth Impressionist exhibition in 1881, was probably his most controversial piece. The suite of pastels depicting nudes that Degas exhibited in the eighth Impressionist Exhibition in 1886 produced “the most concentrated body of critical writing on the artist during his lifetime however The overall reaction was positive and Degas soon joined forces with the Impressionists, and rejected the rigid rules, judgements, and elitism of the Salon In favour of the the experimentalism of the Impressionists.

Degas held the view that a painter could have no personal life, Consequently Degas became isolated. Then The Dreyfus Affair controversy brought his anti-Semitic leanings to the fore and he broke with all his Jewish friends this together with his argumentative nature alienated him from most of his friends. Between 1907 and 1910 he Continued working in pastel and making Sculptures but he ceased working in 1912, when the impending demolition of his longtime residence on the rue Victor Massé forced him to move to quarters on Boulevard de Cliche. He spent the last years of his life, nearly blind, restlessly wandering the streets of Paris before dying 27 September 1917.

During Degas’ life, public reception to his work ranged from admiration to contempt. As a promising artist in the conventional mode, Degas had a number of paintings accepted in the Salon between 1865 and 1870. These works received praise from Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and the critic, Jules-Antoine Castagnary And his dynamic paintings and sketches of everyday life and activities, and his bold color experiments, served to finally tie him to the Impressionist movement as one of its greatest artists and Degas is now considered “one of the founders of Impressionism”. Though his work crossed many stylistic boundaries, his involvement with the other major figures of Impressionism and their exhibitions. His paintings, pastels, drawings, and sculptures are on prominent display in many museums and he also greatly influenced several important painters, most notably Jean-Louis Forain, Mary Cassatt, and Walter Sickert and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

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