Edgar Degas, regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism, was a French artist who was famous for his drawings, paintings, prints and sculptures and more than half his works depict dancers. Born on July 19, 1834, in Paris, France, he was the eldest of five children and was christened as Hilaire-Germain-Edgar de Gas.
Hailing from a musical household, it was not surprising that Degas (as he preferred to be known) received a classical education in the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and graduated with a baccalaureate in literature in 1853. As a child, he showed remarkable skill for drawing and painting and his father, who was an art lover, encouraged this talent. Degas took to painting early in his life and created a studio for himself in his home.
Bowing to the wishes of his father, Degas registered at a law school in Paris in 1853, but his heart was not in it. Auguste Dominique Ingres, whom he met in 1855 launched him in his artistic career and shortly thereafter Degas entered Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1855, where he studied drawing with Louis Lamothe.
His restless spirit craved for more and after just one year, he left school and spent his time, traveling, painting and studying in Italy. He studied and painted copies of the works of the great masters—Michelangelo and Da Vinci– and it was during this period that Degas became accomplished in the techniques of high, academic, and classical art.
In 1859, he returned to Paris to make a name for himself as a painter. His initial efforts—historical scenes and family portraits gradually gave way to scenes of contemporary life. As a conventional artist, Degas had a number of paintings accepted in the Salon. Later on women became the central theme of his paintings- women at work, laundresses, milliners and yet later on dancers- a subject that Degas became
identified with. In all his subsequent paintings, dancers were prominent as were scenes of café life and he urged other artists to paint ‘real life’ instead of mythology.
Impressionism originated in the 1860s and 1870s and thanks to the realism of Courbet and Corot, caught on. The Impressionists launched into painting the realities of the world and used “striking” colours, and focused on the effects of light. The impressionist movement and modern photography had captured Degas’ attention and he soon joined hands with the Impressionists while rejecting the rigidity of the ‘Salon’- a group of French artists and teachers who used to oversee public exhibitions. The Salon and public in turn scorned the experimental nature of the Impressionists.
As the subject matter of his paintings changed, so did his technique and sense of composition and Degas began to use vivid colours with bolder brush strokes.
Degas always painted indoors, preferring to work in his studio and all his works were made up of several parts and always “prepared, calculated, practiced and developed in stages.” He was always reflecting and experimenting with different arrangements and his style was characterized by unfinished paintings. He could never consider any painting to be really complete.
In the mid-1870s, Degas returned to etching and began experimenting with less traditional printmaking media- lithographs and experimental monotypes. By the later 1870s Degas had mastered oils and pastels and his monotype printed images were often reworked with pastels. In the late 1880s, Degas also developed a passion for photography and many of his photographs depicted dancers and nudes, that later on found way into his paintings and drawings.
Degas received admiration and contempt and much of his work was rather controversial. His La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans was probably the most controversial piece that received as much acclaim as it did criticism.
Although Degas crossed many stylistic boundaries, the dynamism of his paintings that depicted everyday life, his bold experimentalism and his involvement with major figures of impressionism made artists sit up and take notice of him as one of the early artists and founders of impressionism. Many of his drawings, sculpture and paintings were for his eyes only and were discovered only after he died.
Degas had many admirers and his paintings influenced many notable painters such as Jean-Louis Forain, Mary Cassatt, and Walter Sickert. He died in Paris in 1917, a polished and refined painter, who was recognized as one of the greatest Impressionist painters of all times.