July 4, 2011

The Art of Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917) was born in Paris, France. He worked in a wide range of media, including oil, watercolor, chalk, pastel, pencil, etching, and photography. He is well known for the elegant ballerina dancers that he painted. While most of the artist focused on their stage performance, Degas was unique in that he captured random informal scenes from dance class or their rehearsals. His compositions seem spontaneous, but they were extremely daring at that time.


(Degas, Edgar. L'etoile [The Star]. c. 1878. pastel on paper. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.)

Degas began painting at an early age. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts which was one of the top art schools in France at that time. He also studied under Louis Lamothe, who was a former pupil of Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres. With this education, he was well on his way to becoming a traditional artist.


(Degas, Edgar. Bailarinas entre bastidores [Four Ballerinas behind the Stage]. c. 1898. oil on canvas. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Russia.)

After a trip to the Louvre in 1864 his work changed radically. Here Degas encountered an accidental meeting with Manet, a famous painter at the time. Manet influenced Degas in the new emerging contemporary style of Impressionism.


(Degas, Edgar. Le tub [The Tub]. c. 1886. pastel on card. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.)

During this time, the industrial revolution produced metal tubes of paint which where portable so it was now possible to paint outside the studio and landscape painting was all the rage. The Impressionists were interested in the effects of light, and they hoped to infuse their scenes with immediacy. Degas was unlike the majority in that he did not use flecks of intense color and he was not interested in painting landscapes or the practice of en plein air, a French term which means to paint “in the open air”.


(Degas, Edgar. Four Dancers. c. 1899. oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

Degas did however try to capture the moment in his work but, he preferred to work inside his studio. Here he painted from memory or sketched from models, who posed for him. He also mimicked the random effects of the new technology of photography.


(Degas, Edgar. La classe de danse [The Dancing Class]. c. 1874. oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.)


Degas said, “no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and of the study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament, I know nothing.”


(Degas, Edgar. Before the Ballet. c. 1890. oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

Degas was a master of movement. He intentionally avoided borrowing poses from classical statues or the Old Master paintings and he loved to capture off-guard moments. Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between his oil paintings and his pastel paintings. Degas purposely painted his oils to have the appearance of a piece created with pastel and his work is much appreciated here!

Enjoy! :)
Reference: King, R. Art. New York: Dk Publishing. 2008.

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