Must-Know Facts About Edgar Degas: the Controversial French Impressionist and Realist

Edgar Degas’ famous paintings, over half of which depicted Paris Opera ballet dancers, have helped shape art history as we know it, and the development of various styles and movements in art. But who was Edgar Degas and what makes him controversial to boot?

How did Edgar Degas Contribute to Impressionism

Let us explore the life of Edgar Degas, a French artist who developed his unique form of Impressionism with his creations using pastel, oil paint, and other media.

Life and Early Work

Born in 1834 in Paris, France, Degas has always had an eye for realism. Although Edgar Degas and Impressionism are thought to go hand in hand, he aspired to be recognized as a realist and strayed from the Impressionist movement.

How did Edgar Degas Contribute to Impressionism?

Degas was an Impressionist with his own unique take on the matter. Always in pursuit of innovation, he managed to bridge the gap between traditional academic art and the more radical movements that came into being around the beginning of the 20th century.

Degas, who was a painter, sculptor, and printmaker, had a strained relationship with his contemporary fellow artists despite playing a crucial part as one of the leading organizers of the first Impressionist exhibition (for which he coined the term “a salon of Realists”) in 1874. He made fun of the en plein air painting technique (outdoor or landscape painting).

For Which Subject Is Degas Best Known?

Scenes of Parisian life may be the first to come to find when it comes to Degas. His principal subject was the human figure, especially that of a woman, such as the instantly recognizable ballet dancers. But he was much more prolific, complex and versatile than that. Above all, he was an innovator.

He originally wanted to be a historical painter but ended up changing his mind about it during his early 30s. Degas was trained in classical painting in-depth under Louis Lamothe at the esteemed Ecole des Beaux-Arts, wherein he obtained his academic education.

Through the middle of the 1860s, Degas did several historical works, following the example of the painter he idolized, the French Neoclassicist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. But in 1865, he began to focus on depictions of contemporary life. Although he never created paintings with historical subjects again, the effects of his training and experience in the academy are evident in his interest in the human physique and his excellent ability with linework.

Degas’s transition to the modern subject matter was a slow and gradual process. Even though Degas eschewed spontaneity in his art, the Impressionism movement was still present in his unorthodox depictions of everyday life. 

Just like many individuals involved in the Impressionism movement, Degas acquired Ukiyo-e prints and was inspired by Japanese art. A love for Japanese-related things began in France in 1853 when opportunities opened up commerce with Japan and countries across the west. Degas’ enthusiasm, however, went past staged japoneries, contrary to many of his peers.

After all, Degas focused on extracting aspects of Japanese aesthetics that he considered most attractive, such as its asymmetric layouts, creative viewpoints, and the use of line and color to define space. Sensual depictions of ladies bathing, genuine aspects of everyday society, and performers are among Degas’ favorite subjects, which are all integral components of the Ukiyo-e genre.

Life During the War, Sight Impairment, and Financial Woes

Degas started having vision issues at age 36, which worsened throughout his life. Soon after joining the National Guard at the start of the Franco-Prussian War, he was diagnosed with a type of retinal condition that would cause him to have trouble telling different colors apart and become sensitive to light. He also ended up developing scotoma because of it.

As a result of his sight impairment, Degas started working indoors since his retinopathy made it challenging for him to see in intense light. Furthermore, he discovered that the dim luminance of dance and operas was well-suitable for him. Upon reaching his 40s, Degas suffered from central vision loss. By the time he turned 57, Degas wasn’t capable of reading anymore.

His failing sight indeed affected his work, causing him to use stronger color palettes and more intense strokes. He also began to explore and experiment with various art mediums, such as sculpting, photography, and printmaking.

In addition, economic trouble spurred his creative obsessions and other media projects. The characters in Degas’ photos, which frequently only use one light source, seem to rise from the shadows and express the surprising closeness for which his works are widely renowned. During his career, Degas continued to create art from images because he believed photography suited his fascination with asymmetrical designs.

Friendship with Mary Cassatt

Edgar Degas’ relationship and partnership with painter Mary Cassatt, an American Impressionist, span several years. Degas and Cassatt crossed paths when Cassatt was a student in Paris in 1877. She was exposed to pastels and engraving by Degas, who also provided a significant part in the development of Cassatt’s style. In exchange, she was crucial in exposing Degas’s work to Americans.

What came next was a good bond between the two artists that lasted for almost 40 years. While it is challenging to infer the extent of their partnership, given the absence of preserved communications between them, the artwork offers a hint. Infrared photos from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, which Degas took in 2014, revealed Degas’ subtle brushwork in Cassatt’s 1878 piece entitled Little Girl in a Blue Armchair.

The Dreyfus Affair

The case of Alfred Dreyfus, the event that caused the division of France from 1894 until 1906, highlighted Degas’ anti-Semitism and led him to sever his relationships with his Jewish acquaintances. The said event involved a French army officer of Jewish ancestry named Alfred Dreyfus, who was wrongfully charged with treason, which set off the controversy.

The French community was split between those in favor of Dreyfus and those against him, who were primarily Catholic and in favor of the Army. Degas and other purists like Renoir firmly belonged to the latter group, while Monet and Pissarro believed Dreyfus was innocent.

Later Life and Posthumous Recognition

Degas experienced more bouts of despair as he aged and became more withdrawn. Degas, who was infamously sexist, temperamental, and unsympathetic, thought that the painter must dwell alone so his personal life remained private.

He became increasingly reclusive and depressed, partly because of his failing eyesight. He also outlived most of his friends, which contributed to his sense of loss and loneliness. He stayed single his whole life and was not known to have been involved in any personal relationships. In fact, Manet remarked that Degas was incapable of having relationships. In 1917, Degas passed away alone with no family.

Degas’ Personal Art Collection

Degas was a genuine art collector who amassed numerous thousands of artworks, sketches, and photographs. After his passing in 1917, Degas’ extensive personal collection was found. The said collection included pieces created by prominent 19th-century artists. During the destruction of Paris in 1918, the property was divided and auctioned off.

Edgar Degas’ Sculptures

Degas had produced more than 150 sculptures made out of clay, plasticine, and wax; his executors approved the bronze molds of his creations so they could be put up for sale. His family found these sculptures in his studio after his demise.

However, the majority of his sculptures were in varying degrees of decay. To sell everything they could, his heirs hired the Paris-based Hebrard foundry to bronze cast seventy-four of the pieces. Degas’ original pieces were previously thought to have been lost during the molding process, but in 1955, 69 of the missing originals were discovered and retrieved.