The Artist Edgar Degas

Born in Paris in 1834, Edgar Degas is most notably associated with the Impressionist art movement, yet his work depicts far more people than what is usual for Impressionist artists who generally painted more outdoor scenes and landscapes. Born to a wealthy family, Degas received excellent training early in his career, but great family debt discovered upon the death of his father would force Degas to work diligently to sell his art.

Degas called himself a “realist” and is particularly known for his brilliant draughtsmanship. While many Impressionist painters took to the outdoors, Degas worked best in his own studio where he could adjust lighting and there perfect his forms—often dancers or café people. It was after his father’s death that Degas worked with many Impressionist artists to organize shows. Although Degas’ work showed marked differences from the other painters of this movement, he sold extremely well—so much so that he became a significant art collector of works by Manet, Cezanne, Delecroix, and Van Gogh.

Degas’ love of realism became more pronounced in the 1880s and corresponded with his love for photography. He photographed friends like Renoir as well as many dancers which he would later model his paintings after. The Dance Class (1873) is a painting that is typical—if one can call a Degas typical—of his dancing scenes. Art historians praise him for his use of odd viewpoints and unusual cropping of scenes. Even though Degas began his career with the desire to become a great painter of history, he grew to be passionate about painting real life. Dancers at work, people in a café, or people on a road as in Place de la Concorde (1875) illustrate the artist’s love for realistic subject matter.

Degas was also passionate about depicting movement. Certainly the many ballet scenes are rich with the idea of movement, but At the Races (1880) depicts movement on a grand scale. On the other hand, the simple depiction of a woman combing her hair as in La Toilette (1886) would become one the artist’s best-known works. Despite Degas’ emphatic devotion to realism, his later paintings would ironically depict more Impressionist techniques and more abstract forms.

Degas died in 1917. His sketches and paintings of everyday life as well as his bold use of color mark him as one of the Impressionist movement’s most famous artists. He is best known for such works as Dancer with a Bouquet of Flowers (1878), Dancers at the Bar (1888), L’Absinthe (1876), and Stage Rehearsal (1879). His works are housed in some of the world’s finest museums such as the Musee D’Orsay in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and the Art Institute in Chicago.