“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” - Edgar Degas
Edgar Degas was born in Paris France on July 19, 1834 to Célestine Musson De Gas and Augustin De Gas who was a wealthy banker. He was the oldest of five children. Degas began to paint as a young boy. By the time he turned eighteen, he had turned his bedroom into an artist's studio. He registered to be an art copyist at the Louvre museum in Paris, the done thing for young artists being to copy paintings there, thus developing their skill. He was one of the few artists of the time who had plenty of money and could devote himself wholeheartedly to his art.
In 1855, Degas met Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres whose art he respected very much. He never forgot his advice: “Draw lines, young man, and still more lines, both from life and from memory, and you will become a good artist”. Later that same year Degas enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and studied drawing with Louis Lamothe who was a former student of Ingres. After having finished his studies he went to Italy where he stayed for five years, studying and copying meticulously the old masters of the Renaissance. His decision to study the old masters was typical for his personality - that of a perfectionist.
Back in France in 1859, Degas exhibited his works for the first five years at the official Salon in Paris. Later he joined the Impressionists and showed his artwork in their exhibitions from 1874 to 1886. The favourite subjects of Degas were scenes from the world of entertainment and later from everyday life. Ballet dancers, little ballerinas, women in intimate situations and horse races are the subjects that are immediately associated with him. Degas in contrast to his impressionist colleagues, preferred to work in a studio. He made sketches of his subjects on the spot and created the painting later in his studio. Toulouse-Lautrec, who was a great admirer of Edgar Degas, had the same work style.
Degas' “Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer”, which he displayed at the sixth Impressionist exhibition in 1881 is one of his most famous works. It was also one of his most controversial. Some art critics thought it was of “appalling ugliness” while others called it a “blossoming”. He wanted to show his dancer at rest, in an unposed way. The young dance student that posed for Degas was Marie van Goethem. Though she never became a famous dancer, she always will be remembered from Degas' work.
Japanese prints were very popular at the end of the nineteenth century and had a great influence on the French impressionists. Edgar Degas was one of the admirers of Japanese prints. Their influence can be seen in some of his daring compositions using large areas of flat colour. Degas was an artist torn between traditional art and the modern impressionist movement. He admired the French artist Ingres and the great Italian painters. His own compositions of images are harmonious and follow the traditions of the old masters. And what often looks like the spontaneous sketch of a fleeting moment, was in reality the elaborate result of a perfectionist at work. From the impressionists he had learned the use of creating effects with light, a daring use of colour and new ways to show the human figure in motion.
Degas used a wide variety of mediums and techniques. When he grew older, he turned to sculpturing, pastels and printmaking. Striving for perfection, he repeated the same subjects again and again. When he concentrated on printmaking in the nineties, his preferred subjects were female nudes, either nude women at their toilette or nude dancers. Edgar Degas had a collection of decorative utensils like a bathtub, a sofa and a curtained bed in a corner of his studio, which he used to assist his models posing for him.
During the war with Germany in 1870-1871 Degas served in the French army. Since his time in the army, he developed problems with his eyes, although the exact medical cause is not precisely known. In his late years the artist's eyesight deteriorated more and more. He was unable to create paintings and focussed his artistic creativity on sculptures. Degas formed his sculptures using wax or clay. Favourite subjects were ballerinas and race horses. When Degas had died, he left more than 2000 oil paintings and pastel drawingss and 150 sculptures. The sculpture models were all cast after his death. Even before his death, Degas was considered an important artist. His colourful works of everyday life crossed over the accepted ways of creating art, his work collectively being considered a corpus of great beauty. Degas himself is now recognised as one of the greatest Impressionists.
The work reproduced above is The Entrance of the Masked Dancers” of 1884 - pastel on paper (49x65 cm, at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts USA).