“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” - Edgar Degas
Edgar Degas was born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar de Gas on July 19, 1834, in Paris, France. His father, Auguste, was a banker, and his mother, Celestine, an American from New Orleans. Their family were members of the middle class with nobler pretensions (as is seen with the adopted affected spelling of their surname). Known to have influenced such great artists as Picasso and Matisse, Edgar Degas was an artist known as the “painter of the ballet”. However, he had an active mind and keen curiosity, working to perfect his skills in photography, lithography, oil paintings, pastels, etching and later in his life, sculpture. Degas’ numerous artistic innovations set the standards for the Impressionists. He was especially intrigued by Parisian life, and his depiction of women in the entertainment world are particularly notable.
Born in Paris, young Edgar was brought up in an upper, middle-class family who sent him to some of the best schools. Although his mother passed away when he was only thirteen years old, Degas dedicated his attention to his studies, books, and art. Only in 1855 did he begin attending the Ècole des Beaux-Arts where he mastered the drawing that would influence so positively his later creations. Degas soon left his formal studies and set out for Italy, where he lived in Naples and Rome supported financially by his father. He became very interested in medieval, Christian, and Renaissance art. He spent hours each day drawing, sketching, admiring art works, and learning about composition, light, colour and technique directly from the works of the great masters.
After spending three-years in Italy, Degas was ready to return to Paris where he would attempt to make a living from his art. Instead, he became a member of the National Guard during the Franco-Prussian War. After two years, he decided to travel to the United States to visit his family who had ties in New Orleans, in the cotton growing business. During this time, he became attracted to painting horses, racetracks and cafés. He was at this stage becoming quite famous in art circles for his previous work and was actually commissioned for a few pieces that brought him enough money to live comfortably.
When Degas returned to Paris, he found that he was tired of displaying his work in the traditional Salon and became associated with the impressionists. However, his paintings reveal an almost innate urge not to conform completely to all the fashions and trends of the day. Degas still worked on portraits and produced some of the best works in Paris. His later works are composed of carefully planned snapshots of Parisian life in all of its breadth and depth. His paintings of “Absinthe” and “Dancers Practicing at the Bar” are typical of his mature style and enjoy wide appeal. He often worked in pastel, his favourite medium, producing series of women, bathers, ballerinas, and horse races. From 1880 he modeled wax figures, which were cast in bronze after his death. He was the first of the Impressionists to achieve recognition. He died on September 27, 1917 in Paris.
The painting above, “Dress Rehearsal” of 1878-9 is an oil on canvas 52.5 × 71 cm exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. It is a characteristic piece of this artist’s ballet works with wonderful composition, delightful colour and light, and a great sense of place. The viewer is immersed in the scene, right there on stage with the ballerinas and the choreographers, feeling very much part of the ambience of the theatre, almost hearing the strains of music and the counting of the beat. There is an intense clarity in the colour and despite being painted in oils, the powdery feel of pure pastel tones is evident. A painting such as this with its underlying masterly drawing, great composition and delightful colour and light shows Degas’ immense talent and great workmanship.