Edgar Degas, born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas (19 July 1834 – 27 September 1917) was a French artist famous for his paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings. He is especially identified with the subject of dance; more than half of his works depict dancers. He is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism, although he rejected the term, preferring to be called a realist. He was a superb draftsman, and particularly masterly in depicting movement, as can be seen in his renditions of dancers, racecourse subjects and female nudes. His portraits are notable for their psychological complexity and for their portrayal of human isolation.
Edgar Degas grew up in Paris, France where his mother was an opera singer and his father a banker. Edgar’s parents had money and he was able to go to good schools growing up. His mother died when he was thirteen years old. Edgar showed a talent for drawing while young and wanted to become an artist. Edgar’s father loved the arts, but knew that it was a tough way to make a living. He wanted Edgar to become a lawyer. Edgar went to law school, but was soon begging his father to let him study as an artist. Eventually his father agreed to support his art career.
Edgar spent a lot of time at the Louvre, where he copied many of the masterpieces of classical artists like Raphael. He also attended art school at the School of Fine Arts. He later travelled to Italy to study the Old Masters, such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. He stayed with his aunt who was married to the Baron Bellelli. He later painted a famous picture of their family called “The Bellelli Family”.
In 1859, Degas returned to Paris. He wanted to become a famous artist. Initially he painted traditional subjects including portraits and grand historical scenes. He submitted his paintings to the Salon, in an attempt to gain prominence. However, the Salon wasn’t impressed with Degas’ paintings. This gave Degas the opportunity to veer away from traditional, conservative painting and experiment with new styles of painting. He began meeting with other artists who thought the same way and this new group would soon be called the Impressionists.
When a number of new artists, including Degas, decided to part ways with the Salon and have their own art show, many people derided them. One critic said their paintings looked unfinished, as if they were “impressions” of a scene rather than finished paintings. The name stuck. Besides Degas, other artists that were part of this group included Claude Monet, Pierre Renoir, and Camille Pissarro. Degas didn't identify himself as an impressionist instead, calling himself a “realist”. He wanted to paint scenes of real life and try to capture a moment, almost like a camera.
His paintings may look spontaneous, but he spent a lot of time planning them out. He would study his subjects and make lots of sketches before starting on a painting. Like many Impressionists, Degas liked to experiment with light, angles, and focus. Sometimes subjects would have their backs to the viewer or be cut off by the edge of the canvas. He would paint subjects off centre and have them doing mundane things, like scratching their backs or ironing clothes. He differed from many Impressionists in that he did not paint outdoors or study the effects of light on landscapes.
One of Degas’ favourite subjects was the ballet dancer. He loved to paint the dancers practicing in rehearsals or backstage before a show. He wanted to capture their energy and grace, but also their hard work and effort. During his career he created more than a thousand pictures of dancers. His eyesight failed later in life making it difficult for him to paint with oils. During this time he painted using pastels. He very seldom considered a painting complete, always wanting to improve it and there are several examples of reworked paintings.
As we have the Melbourne Cup approaching it is apt to show one of Degas’ horse pastel drawings, the “Racehorses in a Landscape” of 1894. It is a pastel on paper, 47.9 x 62.9 cm and in the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on deposit at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. A group of jockeys, formally dressed for the occasion, prepare for a cross-country race through an imposing landscape of hills lit by the setting sun. This picture is very much in the tradition of the outdoor horserace scenes painted in England in the late eighteenth century, and subsequently emulated by painters such as Delacroix and Bonington. Degas himself produced a similar outdoor scene in 1884; in this pastel, however, he moves away from a literal rendering, giving free rein to his skills as a colourist. This shift may reflect the influence of Paul Gauguin (whose painting “The Moon and the Earth” Degas had bought in 1893), and of his own experience in producing colour monotypes.