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Edgar Degas


French artist, a painter and pastelist, sculptor and photographer. He was considered one of the greatest male

French draftsman of the 19th century.

His father was the Italian banker, Auguste De Gas, the head of the family's Paris bank branch that had its

headquarters in Naples, Italy. Edgar's dad was a cultured man with a love for art and music and he was raised

in a Parisian bourgeois household with two brothers. He was given a classical education and studied law.

Adept at drawing, he soon put law aside to become an artist. He studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts under

the great French neo-classical painter, Ingres. He practiced in the technical style of academic art and spent

many years copying the art works in the Louvre and the Bibliotheque Nationale. In Rome, he copied the

Renaissance masters to further his education in the technique of the Old Masters style. He painted self-

portraits and members of his family.

In 1858, his early masterpiece was the group portrait, "The Bellelli Family." It was a painting of his pregnant

Aunt Laura Bellelli, her husband and two daughters.

Changing his name from De Gas to Degas and living in Paris, he was supported by his wealthy family income

and able to develop his personal style. He met other artists such as Manet, Monet, and Fantin-Latour at the

Cafe Guerbois where they discussed art, art techniques, and the role of art in society. He did not need to sell

his paintings and he did not care for the commercial side of exhibiting his artwork. He despised journalists and

literary types who probed his personal life and claimed to explain his works.

During the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, Degas volunteered in the unsuccessful defense of Paris. In 1872, he

left for New Orleans, Louisiana to visit his brothers who ran a cotton business. He returned and by 1874

helped to organize the exhibition of his fellow artists who were refused entry in the annual French Salon


The French audience were not accustomed to the new works by the artists who were later called

"Impressionists." Artists of the day preferred to paint outdoors in nature with the dictates of light at the

moment. Degas' composition style was no longer in the academic technique. He was developing a modern

contemporary format that the other artists liked and admired. The public began to respond favorably to the

modern works. Degas specialized in painting the world of the horse races, ballet and cabaret evenings and

brothels. He painted a series of works on the female figure in her private bath experimenting with composition,

texture and color. In 1890, Degas experimented with photography, taking portrait pictures of his friends Renoir
and Stephane Mallarme. In 1886, he broke from the Impressionists painters, continuing his own private

exploration in art. He also practiced printmaking, lithography, engraving, etching and aquatint. He would

eventually set aside oil for the use of pastels and experiment with watercolor, pencil, gouache, and oil with

pastel. He collected the paintings of El Greco, Tiepolo, Ingres, Delacroix, Manet, Gauguin, Cézanne, Whistler

and van Gogh. His own works sold for the highest price ever achieved up to that time by a living artist-

$95,700. He had originally sold the painting for $100.

Degas was a private, driven, methodical bachelor. He gave his life to his art career and preferred the

independence of working and living alone in his studio. He never wanted to have such distractions as married

life from his pursuit of perfecting his works. Always shy and aloof, Degas was known as a difficult person in

friendships. He despaired of his talents and abilities, working motifs and themes over and over again. He was

a cantankerous person to his friends. The American painter and collector, Mary Cassatt, was a life-long friend.

To his nieces, nephews and select close friends he was amiable and charming but with a cutting sharp wit.

Hisvoyeurism held an undercurrent of cruelty.

In his 40's Degas' brother sent the family into debt from cotton speculation. Edgar and his brother paid the

debt to save the family's reputation. Against his principles, Edgar sold his art works, lived in cheaper

accommodations, and employed cheap models to help his family to solvency. He was angry with the Dreyfus

Affair in France and after the trial Degas became maliciously anti-Semitic, breaking his camaraderie with his

Jewish friends. He did not like politicians, architects and the progressive thinkers and inventors of his time.

Degas' eyesight was steadily worsening with age. He shunned painting outdoors for the sunlight was too

harsh and painful to his eyes. He believed that his bad eyesight developed during his exposure to the cold

during his service in the Franco-Prussian war. As one eye went blind, he became a virtual recluse in his Paris

studio working with clay and shaping it into the female form or the galloping action of a horse. Degas outlived

his fellow artists Manet, Cézanne, Gauguin and Pisarro and witnessed the Cubist art of Picasso and Juan

Gris. He died on 27 September 1917 in Paris. His brother destroyed some of Degas' brothel drawings and the

art collection sold in a series of auctions. In 1955, the original waxes of Degas' works were discovered in the

cellar of the foundry operator's house. On 11 October 1988 an exhibition opened at the Metropolitan Museum

of Art in New York with the largest display of nearly 300 works of the artist from private and public collections.

Degas once observed, "Art is not a matter of what you can see, but what you can make other people see."

Link to Wikipedia biography