Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
in the centre of the ‘impressionist’ art-movement
Was Degas an Impressionist?
Degas didn’t want to be called an Impressionist. He never painted en-plein-air, in his (early) paintings he used many browns and blacks and put more emphasize on line, than on colour. In that sense he didn’t paint in an impressionist painting style. Yet he was a key figure in what we now call the ‘impressionist’ art-movement. A movement he had preferred to call ‘Realist’ or ‘Independent’ (iR3;iR25). Degas had many contacts within the ‘impressionist’ circles, was co-founder of the ‘Société Anonyme…’ and had an important role in 7 of the 8 ‘impressionist’ expositions (see more). While Renoir (in 1878) and Monet (in 1880) returned to the Salon, it was Degas he emphasized the independence of the ‘impressionist’ expositions, by introducing (in 1879) the rule that those who submitted to the Salon, could not join the ‘impressionist’ expositions. Thus inspiring other independent group exhibitions like the ‘Salon des Independents’ (1884 onwards) and ‘Les XX’ in Brussels (18xx onwards). Redon would praise Degas because he made the principle of independence so important (R47,p98).
Still the fleeting moment of every day life was a main theme in his paintings (since 1865; R27,p35+41;iR25). And also the rendering of the light effect was important for him (R26,p162). In the 1880s colour became more important for Degas and in his pastels he used juxtaposed brushstrokes. In that sense his painting style partly can be called ‘impressionistic’.
Edgar de Gas at the Salon:
Degas made his debut at the Salon in 1865. He was yearly excepted with 1 or 2 works. 1870 was the last time he submitted to the Salon. Degas mostly exhibited portraits and under the name Edgar de Gas (iR1). He never was very successful at the Salon (R26,p8). In 1878 Degas introduced the new condition that an artist intending to exhibit with the ‘impressionist’ group should not submit anything to the Salon (R2,p244). In contrast with Monet, Renoir, Sisley and others Degas stayed opposed and independent from the Salon.
See for the pictures: Degas at the Salon. See for an account
Edgar Degas joined 7 of the 8 ‘impressionist’ expositions:
Degas exhibits 10 works at the first ‘impressionist’ exposition in 1874 .
Degas exhibits about 25 works at the second ‘impressionist’ exposition in 1876 .
Degas exhibits 26 works at the third ‘impressionist’ exposition in 1877 .
Degas exhibits 24 à 26 works at the fourth ‘impressionist’ exposition in 1879.
Degas exhibits at least 14 works (the catalogue did not seem accurate) at the fifth ‘impressionist’ exposition in 1880. Eugène Véron reviewed in L’Art ‘Degas continues to be passionately devoted to movement , pursuing it even in violent and awkwardly contorted forms.’ (R2,p300;R90I,p317)
Degas exhibits 12 works at the sixth ‘impressionist’ exposition in 1881.
Degas did not exhibit at the 7th ‘impressionist’ exposition, because Raffaëlli and other artists that were first invited by Degas, were not aloud to join (R2,p373).
Degas exhibits 15 works at the eight ‘impressionist’ exposition in 1886 .
See link for an account.
After the ‘impressionist’ expositions Degas created an image of himself of an artist who did not exhibit anymore (R26,p13). But in fact his work was regularly exhibited in Paris and abroad. Some of these foreign exhibitions were called ‘impressionist’ (aR2,p9;R47). These exhibitions included a solo exhibition in 1892 and the ‘Exposition Universelle’ in 1900 (R47,p121; R3,p657).
Edgar Degas as an artist and his contacts within the impressionist circles:
In 1853 Degas starts to take painting lessons with Félix Barrias and to copy etchings at the Cabinet des Estampes and later in the Louvre (until 1868). In 1854 he takes lessons with Louis Lamothe. In 1855/04/06 Degas starts his studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he becomes acquainted with Léon Bonnat, Fantin-Latour en Legros; he would stop his studies the same year (or in 1866). In the same year he meets Ingres who stimulates him to draw many lines. From 1856-1860 he regularly visits Italy. There he makes several portraits of his family, self-portraits, copies of old masters and becomes acquainted with Émile Lévy, Gustave Moreau, members of the ‘Macchiaioli’ and others. In 1858 his friend Félix Bracquemond arouses his interest in Japanese art. (R47,p11-13+34;R26,p7+11;R27,p20+27;iR24) In his portraits Degas tried to render their personality (see below CR163); he also depicted an inability to connect (see above S1867-444) (R26,p82;aR2,p44;iR3). 1860/1 onwards Degas regularly stays with the Valpinçon family in Ménil-Hubert and starts to paint horse scenes (R47,p14;R26,p11). In 1865 (or:1862) Degas learns to know Manet and he starts to depict themes from the modern life (iR11,p205;R26,p8+93;R27,p41+44). 1866 onwards Degas starts to visit Café Guerbois, where he meets many other artists (R47,p33;R26,p12;R27,p41). 1868 travelled with Manet to London (iR24). 1869 frequently visits the Morisot family and paints with Manet in Boulogne and Saint-Valéry-en-Caux (R47,p34;R26,p12). Berthe Morisot had always admired Degas greatly (R47,p115). 1873 onwards Degas frequently visits the Café de la Nouvelle Athènes (R47,p48;R26,p12). 1879 onwards pastels with nudes become a major subject (R26,p134). In the early 1880s (or around 1885) Degas en Gauguin become close friends (R47,p84;R26,p13). 1886 onwards Degas distances from his impressionist friends, but he would preserve his friendship with Pissarro until the end (R47,p97). 1888 onwards Degas has more and more succes in the USA; Mary Cassatt and the Havemeyer family play an important role in that (R47,p98).
1898 onwards his sight becomes worse every day and Degas dedicates himself to sculpture (R47,p116). After his death they found around 150/3 sculptures of wax and other materials; only 73 could be preserved and were casted in bronze. (R11,p218;R26,p10) Degas never made still lives (R47,p93;aR2,p199) and just a few landscapes which he made in his studio (see below CR250; R47,p112).
The painting style of Degas:
Following Ingres the line always was more important than colour (R47,p12+50;R27,p7+84). In his (early) paintings he used many browns and blacks (see above CR186). Degas painted his figures in his studio and created his own imagined composition, partly using his memory. He didn’t use vibrating brushstrokes (R47,p63;R26,p162;R27,p60+83). His art had nothing spontaneously. A same subject had repeatedly to be rendered, also from different perspectives. He mainly is an observer (R26,p162-4;R27,p72). In the 1880s his colours become more intensified and Degas also uses complementary colours (R47,p101+117+119;R11,p208;R27,p84). The colour strokes of his pastels come close to an Impressionist way of painting (R27,p84;iR3). In many of his dancers and nudes the faces of the models are half hidden (R47,p91+120;R11,p208;R27,p72). 1886 onwards Degas doesn’t seem to discriminate between preliminary studies and finished works (R47,p104). In the 1890s colour seem to become more important than line (R47,p107+111). In his later paintings he left out more and more detail (R47,p111+126+127;R11,p216). He said that a painting needs a certain mysteriousness, vagueness and fantasy (R26,p162). Degas himself said about his way of working: A painting is an original combination of lines and colours who complete each other. You have to arrange the different elements to achieve something enchanting. (R47,p57). After first painting several historical paintings (1860-5), Degas dedicated himself to rendering fleeting moments of every day life (R27,p35+41;iR25). The rendering of the light effect was important for Degas (R26,p162). Already in his more early paintings Degas cut of his figures (see below CR125). Degas also used remarkable perspectives (see above CR 186 / 405 / 476 / 872). Both ways of working were influenced by Japonism (R47,p36+72+87+103+114;R11,p204+209+210+314-19;R5,p6;R27,p83). In his portraits objects became as important as the model, objects that also represented the character of the model (see above CR305 / 517 and below CR125).
Edgar Degas experimented with several media:
His whole life Degas did search for the best media to depict his scenes (R47,p81;R26,p165). In 1876 Degas starts to make etchings and monotypes (R47,p65). In 1877 Degas exhibited 3 monotype drawings made with greasy ink (1877-58-60). Degas also would rework his monotypes with pastel, gouache and other media. 1881 onwards he intensifies his working with monotypes (and also with pastels; R47,p84). 1890-93 Degas makes a series of landscapes in monotype. These landscapes were imaginary (R47,p105+112;R26,p138).
Degas did experiment with chemical means to discover what pigments would be most sustainable (R47,p75+92). In 1879 Degas exhibit some works with essence / oil thinned with terpentine (see 1879-63). In 1879 Degas exhibited several works détrempe / tempera (see 1879-58); he invented the technique of waterpastel (R27,p93). Later on Degas would rework his oil paintings in a way he made them look like pastels (R47,p107/8+118). After 1880-85 the use of pastels become dominant over oil paintings. Often he would mix the pastel with gouache, watercolour of essence / terpentine. Often he would lay several colour layers on top of each other. (R27,p84).
In 1879, together with Cassatt, Pissarro, Félix Bracquemond, Caillebotte, Forain, Raffaëlli and Rouart, Degas had plans for a journal with etchings called ‘la jour et la nuit’ (R47,p66;R26,p12;aR2,p61-3+235-45). A plan that failed, because Degas was not ready (aR2,p235). It was Lepic who taught him in the technique of etching (iR3). At the end of the 1870s Degas made about 20 fans using watercolour, gouache, pastel, ink and other media on silk (R47,p81). In 1879 he exhibited 5 of them (see 1879-77-81). Degas also liked photography and used it for his paintings (R5,p204;R47,p106).
Edgar Degas was a painter of gestures instead of movement:
Some emphasize Degas was a painter of movement (R47,p77+95;R11,p208;R26,p6+10+165;R27,p51+58+81+83;iR3). But when we look more closely, many of the movements Degas renders are frozen, like in a statue (R47,p25;R11,p219).
Degas renders his figures, especially his dancers and nudes, in all kind of poses. Poses that look a bit unnatural, forced, distorted or even vulgar. When we look closer, Degas uses these poses for the lines in his composition. Degas also reused earlier poses in new compositions. (R47,p63+64+70+75+80+90+96+100+103+107+108+110+111+113+117;R26,p164;R27,p75;R3,p121)
Was Edgar Degas rich or poor?
After the death of his father in Februar 1874 and because of the poor business management of his brothers, the family bank became bankrupt and Degas agreed to pay back the family debts, which lasted until the (late) 80’s and left him with limited resources (R27,p85+93;aR2,p11+85;R47,p104). He also had to sell part of his art-collection (R47,p48;R27,p86). He would regularly ask Durand-Ruel for money (R26,p10).
Edgar Degas as an art-collector:
During his life Degas collected art (aR2,p11). Somewhere between 1883 and 1893, when sales of his own works became successful, he started to collect to the full and he even got ideas of creating a museum (aR2,p8+16;R47,p52+125;R26,p10+14). Degas his collection consisted mostly of French artists from the 19th century, including many works of Ingres and Delacroix; 1800 litho’s of Daumier; the almost complete graphic work of Manet; some old masters; works from fellow Impressionists, including Boudin, Félix Bracquemond, Brandon, Cézanne, Cassatt, Gauguin, Guillaumin, Forain, Legros, Lepic, Morisot, de Nittis, Piette, Pissarro, Renoir, Rouart, Sisley, Zandomeneghi (many of them in exchange with his own works), but not of Monet, whose work he detested (aR2,p3+5+60-64+197+298;R47,p52-4+125;R26,p10;R27,p87;iR65;iR3). In his collection there were just a few landscapes (aR2,p43). After his death his collection was soled in auctions in 1918 (26-27 Marz; 6-8 May; 6+7/15+16/22+23 Novembre; 11-13 December), and in 1919 (7-9 April; 2-4 July). (aR2,p337;iR65;R5,p237;aR1;R47,p54;R26,p14).
Degas his character:
Degas often came in conflict with others: with Manet after he criticised the double portrait of his and his wife (aR2,p45;R26,no214); after Tissot soled his Degas collection (R47,p52); after Renoir soled the Degas painting he received from the Caillebotte collection (R31,p308); after buyers resoled his work to make profit (R47,p53); after he did not finish a painting in commission of Fauré in time (R47,p74).
Degas often was full of self-doubt, high demanding to himself and others, highly disciplined, with unpredictable moods and a deadly irony (R26,p6). His exterior cruelty was a protection for his easy to hurt interior (R27,p8).
In his relations with women Degas could be detached en rude. He always stayed single. The relation with Mary Cassatt was the most close, but also this relation ended with a conflict (R26,p9+10;iR3).
Hilaire Germain Edgar de Gas / Degas, a short private biography:
- 1834/07/19 born as Hilaire Germain Edgar de Gas in the Rue Saint-Georges,8 in Paris (R47,p11;R26,p11;R27,p16).
Note: he changed around 1873 ‘de Gas’ into Degas, which was the original family name (R27,p16; R26,p11)
- His father was a rich banker. His mother comes from an Creole family from New Orleans. His grandfather had fled to Italy, where part of the family still lived. He came from an aristocratic family. (R47,p11+19;R26,p5-7;R27,p16)
- 1845/10/05: starts his studies at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, where Henri Rouart, Paul Valpinçon and Ludovic Halévy become his lifelong friends (R47,p11;R27,p93;R27,p16)
- 1847/09/05: his mother dies (R47,p11;R27,p93;R26,p7)
- 1854-60 visits to Italy (partly to his family) (R26,p11;R27,p20)
- 1865-70: lives at 13, Rue de Laval, Paris (iR1), now 13, Rue Victor Massé (iR218).
- 1870 serves in the Franco-Prussian war under his friend Henri Rouart (R47,p47;R26,p8)
- 1870: first problems with his sight (R47,p47;R26,p8)
- 1872: starts to visit the dance school of the Opéra at the Rue le Peletier (R47,p47;R26,p12)
- 1872: meets Durand-Ruel, who buys some of his works (R27,p93;R26,p12)
- 1872-6: Degas exhibits in London (at the Durand-Ruel gallery and other galleries) (R47,p47/8+65)
- 1872/10 – 1873/04: Degas visits his family in New Orleans (R47,p47+48;R26,p12)
- 1883: withdraws more and more from social life (R47,p84;R26,p12); this withdrawal is intensified 1893 onwards; he would receive just a few people in his house; he spend most of his social life with the Rouart, Valpinçon and Halévy family; around 1896/7, because of the Dreyfus affair, he would also distance from the Halévy family (R47,p106+113-6+128;R26,p10+14;R27,p16). Dumas states this with drawl was more a myth and only a fact after 1912 (aR2,p44).
- 1886: treaty with Durand-Ruel (R27,p93)
- 1890: moves to the Rue Victor Massé, 37 where he also had a studio and exhibited his collection (R47,p54+105+123). Dumas mentions 1897/11 as date (aR2,p14).
- 1893-95: further decline of his sight (R27,p93)
- 1912 had to leave his former house and moved to the Boulevard de Clichy, 6 (R47,p123;R26,p10+14)
- 1908-12: Degas was almost blind and stopped drawing / painting (R47,p123;R27,p93)
- 1917/09/27 Degas dies at the age of 83 (aR2,p3;R47,p124;R27,p93) (Dony mentions Degas died the 26th; R26,p10; Bénézit does the same, iR24). Only his best friends are present, including Monet, Forain (R47,p124).
My main sources are books on Degas of Torres (2006=R47), Dony (1976=R26) and Hüttinger (1977=R27). Additional sources are Moffett (1986, R2), Walther (2013, R3), Denvir (1993, R5), the English Wikipedia (iR3) and the Salon database (iR1). Several sources refer to the Catalogue Raisonné of Lemoisne (1946-9=CR114). My main sources for the pictures are the-athenaeum.org (iR2), Wikimedia (iR6), Google art-project (iR8), Google images (iR10), art-degas.com (iR53) and magrasku.de (iR59). For other general references (=R) see. For other references to internet sites (=iR) see. For other additional references (=aR) see below. See links for practical hints and abbreviations and for the subscription of the paintings.
For further reading see:
Additional references (=aR):
- bibliotheque-numerique.inha.fr (1918/11/25-26 catalogue of the 2nd auction of Degas’ legacy)
- Ann Dumas (ed): The private collection of Edgar Degas. Metropolitan, 1997 (digital book)
- www.degas.org (1253 pictures in alphabetical order)
- innovative impressions prints (article referring to an exhibition in 2018 in Philbrook about the prints of Cassatt, Degas and Pissarro)
- gallica.bnf.fr//henri_beraldi_tome_5 (the entire 5th Volume of Henri Beraldi: Les graveurs du XIXe siècle with works about Degas; =iR40 = R85V)
- gallica.bnf.fr//loys_delteil_peintre-graveur_tome_9 (the entire 9th volume of Loys Delteil: Le peintre-graveur illustré (XIX – XXe siècles about Edgar Degas; =R138IX)
- “Edgar Degas.” In Database of Modern Exhibitions (DoME). European Paintings and Drawings 1905-1915. Last modified Dec 17, 2020. http://exhibitions.univie.ac.at/person/ulan/500115194 =iR261; overview of contributions of Degas in exhibitions and auctions from 1905-1915.