Edgar Degas (1843-1917)

The son of a wealthy banker, and his aristocratic family background instilled into Edgar Degas’ early art a proud yet sensitive quality of detachment. Beginning in law he soon abandoned it for his life long love of art. He started classes at the Ecole des Beaux Arts but left in 1854 and went to Italy. He stayed there for five years, focusing on the Renaissance works of Italian art. A shy and aloof young man, from the testimony of his friends-- one could, as well easily surmise it from his early self-portraits, with their obscured look of mannerist inwardness acquired from Pontormo - and remarkably empty of narcissism: very different from almost every nineteenth-century painter, he gave up painting his own face at thirty-one. It was the Other that fascinated him: all faces except his own.

Not the most easily read of the Impressionists, although actively sympathetic with them, Degas was an independent talent of great power, he stood somewhat apart from them. He took part in all but one of the eight Impressionist exhibitions between 1874 and 1886, his art was more than any of his peers of his studied and infinite variations of various movements--in particular the kinesthetic qualities of bodies in motion. Much of his work depicts race horses, bathers, laundresses, milliners, and ballet dancers. Figures are truncated --a momentary glance as if they have been caught and stopped in action. Degas' insistence of line undoubtedly is evidence of the influences by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres which he visited frequently. Ingres impressed upon him the importance of classical draftsmanship, stressing balance and clarity of outline...who advised him to, "draw lines…many lines, from memory or from nature; it is this way that you will become a good painter"

Influences abound in his work from photography as well as the Japanese prints available in Europe at the time. Discovered by European artists in the mid-nineteenth century, these prints were the first defining influence from non-European art on European design. The earlier borrowing from China, Arabia, and India had been superficial.

Viewers saw his work as not being framed properly. There was no use of chiaroscuro to show depth and the cropping at edges caused the space to recede on a slant. Ballerinas were in arrested movements-- split second poses cut from the sequence of their dance. His most favored subject, the often cut off dancers revealed his fascination with photography. Not only did he study the photography of others, but he employed the camera as well, to make preliminary studies for his own work, especially with figures in interiors. Using cunning spatial projection he derived not only from careful observation and a personal interest in photography, but undoubtedly combined eighteenth-century Japanese woodblock prints inspiring in which diverging lines not only organized the flat shapes of the figures but also functioned as well to focus the observer's attention into the picture space. His work is not in the depiction of details, but is the suggestion of a scene. Degas was a superb master of line, indeed this is what identifies him as an Impressionist in the way that Monet, Pissaro and Renoir are Impressionists. However unlike them, Degas' designs do not cling to the surface as do Manet's and Monet's, they are deeply developed in depth and take the viewer well behind the picture plane, specializing in studies of figures in rapid and informal movements, recording the quick impression of arrested motion, and he did use the spectral color-- the fresh divided hues of the Impressionists--especially in his most favored medium, pastel. Use of the dry sticks of powdered pigments cannot be muddied on a palette, as a result they automatically generated those bright fresh colors so adored by the Impressionists. All of these qualities are seen in The Morning Bath which compares to Renoir's treatment of the same subject with it's intimate and informal presentation, but differs from Renoir in that it is indifferent to either physical beauty or formality. He did not care to be tied down to one method of painting and his strategy seems to have been to show off his own diversity at the exhibitions, for he always entered works that varied greatly thematically and technically. Focused on unplanned realism of the purely accidental attitude of the human figure is seen an awkward yet in a natural enough moment. The broken volume of the nude’s body twists across Japanese angles, flat planes and patterns. Spontaneous and informal the pose suggests a snapshot, but photographic materials at the time, including motion pictures in its infancy, were unable to capture the light and verity of motion that Edgar Degas sought to depict above all else.

In his later years Degas was talking with one of his few friends and many admirers, English painter Walter Richard Sickert. After dining at a café. Young Sickert got ready to call a fiacre, a horse-drawn cab. Degas objected saying

"Personally, I don't like cabs. You don't see anyone. That's why I love to ride on the omnibus-you can look at people. We were created to look at one another, weren't we?"

A passing remark that gives a glimpse into the heart of nineteenth-century Realism. The idea of the artist as an Instrument for looking, a being whose purpose was to study what Balzac, in a title that declared its rebellion from the theological order of Dante's Divine Comedy, called La Comédie Humaine.

Critics reviled him with accusations of hatred for women. They refused to see their own embedded hypocrisy about formal beauty in the depilated Salon nudes of Bouguereau and Cabanel - 'ideal wax with little rosy nipples.'

"Why do you paint women so ugly, Monsieur Degas?" some hostess foolishly asked him. "Parce que la femme en general est laide, madame," growled the old terror: "Because, madam, women in general are ugly."

This was mendacious....to find Degas' true feelings about women, one merely needs to look the pastels and oil paintings of nudes that he made, at the height of his career in the 1880s and 1890s. His series of pastels of women bathing are ambiguously arranged, not for the eye of the viewer, they are voyeuristic and unflattering. Some critics still find them clinical, because they appear to be done from a point outside the model's awareness, as though she did not know he was there and were not, actually, posing. "I want to look through the keyhole," Degas said. Reflecting from old age, Degas considered that "perhaps I have thought about women as animals too much," although he was certainly reproached for doing so, it is so evidently untrue-- his keyhole bathers provoked the crisis of the Ideal Nude, whose last great influence had been the man Degas revered most.... Ingres. Within them, a great combination of parts between two approaches that, thirty years earlier, had been considered the opposed extremes of French art - Ingres' classical line, Eugene Delacroix's Romantic color - become one. This is a clear example in where real innovators, such as Degas, do not destroy the past, as the mythology of avant-gardism insisted, they evolve it.

Degas eventually created a formidable character to overcome his shyness and the artist eventually became the solitary, the feared aphorist, the Great Bear of Paris. Never married, his eyesight failed in later life; he became completely blind in one eye and nearly so in the other. At his death he left an important collection of the drawings and paintings of his contemporaries and a notebook of poetic compositions, mostly in sonnet form, he died in Paris in 1917-- "I would have been in mortal misery all my life for fear my wife might say, 'That's a pretty little thing,' after I had finished a picture." though he was not homosexual, most art historians consider it more likely that he was impotent. If so, all the luckier for art: his libido and curiosity were channeled through his work. How we would have bored him, with our feeble jabber of postmodernist appropriation!

Selected References:


De La Croix, Horst, Richard D. Tansey, and Diane Kirkpatrick.
Art Through the Ages. University of Michigan: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991.

Justus, Kevin. "Art and Culture II." Tucson, Arizona.
1992. (Lecture presented at Pima Community College.)

Olga's Gallery:

Webmuseum, Paris:

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