Edgar Degas was a pioneering French impressionist painter working in the 19th century. He spent most of his working life in Paris, painting working women and everyday society with unparalleled skill.
Edgar Degas paintings shaped European approaches to art for decades. Perhaps even centuries. His influence even extended to Australian and American Impressionist movements.
But who was the iconic painter Edgar Degas? We explore his private life and most famous paintings.
Degas grew up in Paris, France. Born 19 July 1834, Degas’ parents were French and American.
His father (Auguste) worked in banking, and his mother hailed from New Orleans. His mother was a skilled amateur operatic singer. Because of her talent, leading musicians often gave recitals from the Degas family home.
Degas gained a classical education at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, a prestigious Paris boy’s school.
During this time, Degas displayed his early talent for art. Encouraged by his father, Degas copied hundreds of artworks at the Louvre in 1853. Then, aged 18, he created many impressive replicas of Raphael, Ingres, and Delacroix.
In 1855, Edgar Degas enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts (a prestigious institution in Paris), excelling in portraiture. Even in his early works, Degas mixed his teachers' traditional, conservative approach with new impressionist techniques.
After just one year, Degas left the École des Beaux-Arts and traveled through Italy. He gained an in-depth classical understanding by studying Leonardo da Vinci's and Michelangelo's works. Indeed, Degas’ reverence for the Old Masters is apparent even in his most modern impressionist paintings.
Returning to Paris in 1859, Degas focused on traditional portraiture and history painting. However, despite this classical inspiration, the powerful (and highly traditional) Paris Salon jury didn't display these paintings. This rejection massively frustrated Degas.
Edgar Degas art is crucial to French impressionism. Nonetheless, he preferred the term “realist” when describing his paintings.
In 1862, Degas met Edouard Manet. It was a revolutionary pairing, and Degas even painted Manet’s portrait in 1866.
Both artists shared disdain for the Salon art establishment. In addition, both artists yearned for more modern approaches to art. Soon joined by Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, this group became the iconic French impressionists.
Less than ten years later, the Franco-Prussian war erupted. Lasting from 1870-71, it ended in a violent civil war. After this, the Third Republic wrested control of France from the infamous Paris Commune.
Despite enrolling in the French National Guard, Degas escaped much of the chaos with a trip to New Orleans. Here, he painted A Cotton Office in New Orleans (1873).
Returning to Paris in late 1873, Degas founded the Société Anonyme des Artistes. This artistic group (dedicated to putting on non-Salon exhibitions) caused a scandal with their first show. Held on 15 April 1874, this was the first impressionist exhibition.
Degas exhibited modern portraits of working-class women, featuring laundresses and ballet dancers. These artworks included iconic images such as The Rehearsal (1873). All painted from unusual angles and perspectives; his paintings were genuinely revolutionary.
Degas participated in all subsequent French impressionist exhibitions. Some of his most famous works include Edgar Degas Ballerina paintings and his impressions of working women.
These works include Edgar Degas The Dance Class (1874), Woman Ironing (1887), and Dancers Practicing at the Bar (1900). However, Prima Ballerina (otherwise known as L’Etoile or The Star) is arguably his most famous piece. These paintings wonderfully contrast the grace and beauty of performance with everyday “behind the scenes” reality.
In 1886, Degas exhibited at the final Impressionist exhibition in Paris. Here, he showed ten paintings of bathing women, including Woman Bathing in a Shallow Tub. Mostly nude, these paintings shocked contemporary observers.
While some described his sitters as “ugly,” others praised their honesty. Despite the controversy, the theme fascinated Degas. After this point, he painted hundreds of portraits of nude (often bathing) women.
Degas changed art through his focus on modern, contemporary subjects. Painted with free, expressive brushstrokes, they portray a rapidly changing society. While Edgar Degas art wasn’t directly political, his paintings reflect Paris's changing social and economic life.
For the first time, art reflected everyday life. For instance, his paintings notably charted the rise of the bourgeoisie and middle classes. Moreover, they reflect the emergence of France’s service economy, with dancers, laundresses, and waiters all attending newly affluent classes. In addition, Edgar Degas paintings reflect women’s entry into the workplace.
Although Degas used impressionist techniques of bright color and expressive brushstrokes, he carefully ordered and pre-planned all his works. Indeed, Degas once joked that he was the “least spontaneous” artist. But, he further quipped, “if the painting weren’t so difficult,” it wouldn’t be half “so fun.”
In addition to his impressionist oil paintings, Degas also created several ballerina sculptures.
His creations played with unusual angles, perspectives, and off-center designs like his paintings. The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer (1880) is the most famous figure. Dividing critical opinion at the time, some condemned Degas as “cruel” for his hyper-realistic portrayal. However, others found his hauntingly evocative creation simply “brilliant.”
Degas painted less during later life. Nevertheless, he continued promoting his artwork, even starting a contemporary art collection. Degas never married but had several intimate relationships during his life. Most notable was his relationship with the American Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt.
Edgar Degas died, aged 83, on 27 September 1917.
Recognized as one of the greatest impressionist painters of all time, the sheer beauty of Edgar Degas art still shines through. His intensely modern portraits (all painstakingly painted and highly refined) are true impressionist masterpieces.
If you adore Edgar Degas art, explore our extensive collection. Whether it’s The Ballerina Degas painting or beautiful society portraits, you’ll discover fine art oil painting reproductions you love
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