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Encyclopedia > Degas

Edgar Degas (July 19, 1834 - September 27, 1917) was a French painter and sculptor.

Born Edgar Hilaire Germain de Gas in Paris, France, he was the oldest of five children. Madame de Gas belonged to a French family that settled in America. Degas was fond of his mother and her death in 1847 was a deep personal tragedy for Degas. His father, a banker, encouraged his son’s artistic inclination. He received a classical education at Lycee Louis-le-Grand from 1845 to 1852.


In 1852 he transformed a room from the family home into a studio and worked under Felix Joseph Barrias. He made copies of the old masters in the Louvre and studied the prints of Dürer, Mantegna, Rembrandt and Goya. In 1854 he studied with Louis Lamothe who was a disciple of Ingres for whom Degas would retain great respect. In 1855 Degas began study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, but found the course too unprofitable and too restricting. Degas preferred home study of classical tradition. He was also able through hospitable family members to make regular trips to Italy during this period. He studied hard making copies of pictures and filling sketchbooks.


In 1859 Degas opened a studio in Paris and portraiture and historical subjects occupied his time. Degas finally abandoned the historical genre in 1866 for several reasons: In 1862 Degas met Manet who was interested in themes from modern life in preference to traditional subject matter. Degas also met novelist Edmond Duranty a passionate believer in realism who wanted to remove the barrier between art and life. Degas was a regular at cafe Guerbois where many artists associated with Impressionism would meet.

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"La Classe de Danse", painted 1874.

Degas's changing views were reflected in his art during the late 1860's. He turned to theatre and the racecourse for inspiration. During the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1871) Degas served in the artillery. He contracted a severe chill during his service, which was the first trouble with his eyes.


Degas lived with relatives in New Orleans, Louisiana 1872-1873. One of the paintings he did there and then brought back to France, The Cotton Exchange at New Orleans (http://www.hayalevi.com/cgi-bin/sanatgalerisidetay.asp?resim=153) got him favorable attention, and was his only work purchased by a museum (that of Pau) during his lifetime.


On his return he opened a studio, concentrating on themes from modern life: dancers, acrobats, singers, washerwomen, etc. He also did female nudes, which, along with dancers, became his favourite subject mater. In 1874 Degas' father died, leaving him vast debts. Degas was forced to sell off some of his art collection. From 1874 Degas sent works to the impressionist group shows (he helped organise first impressionist exhibition). In 1881 he showed The little dancer of fourteen years, his only sculpture exhibited during his life. After the Last Impressionist exhibition in 1886, Degas stopped sending works to exhibitions.


In the 1880s, when his eyesight began to fail, Degas shifted his talent to sculpture and pastel, which did not require such acute vision. By the 1890's he could only work on large compositions and in 1908 he gave up art completely. It was a crippling blow to Degas. Degas was evicted from his home and a new studio was found for him, but he never settled there. He wandered the streets like a blind Homer.

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A sculpture by Degas

Famous and revered, Degas died in Paris on 27 September 1917 and is buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre, Paris, France. Degas left more than 2000 oil paintings and pastels and 150 sculptures.


Degas' innovative composition, influenced by photography and the Japanese woodblock prints called Ukiyo-e , his skillful drawing, and perceptive analysis of movement made him one of the masters of progressive art in the late 19th century. He is especially known for his paintings of ballet dancers and other women, as well as of race horses. He is often considered an Impressionist, but his work sometimes goes more in classical and realist directions, other times to Romanticism.


Today, paintings by Degas can sell for more than $16 million USD.


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