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Artist Focus: Degas

Edgar Degas – French Impressionist

Degas is one of my personal favorites, especially the paintings of the ballerinas. He captured a behind the scenes image of the life of the professional ballerina.

He was born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar de Gas on July 19, 1834, in the city of Paris, France. His father was Augustin de Gas, a banker of prominence. His mother was Marie-Celestine Musson from New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. She was Creole, descended from original French and Spanish settlers in Louisiana. She was an amateur opera singer. His father would arrange music recitals in their home.

Edgar was the eldest of 5 children and showed artistic talent at an early age which was encouraged by his father. They were a moderately wealthy family and the desire was for Edgar to go to law school. He had a very classical educational upbringing, attending Lycée Louis-le-Grand, and graduating in 1853 with a degree in literature. He enrolled in law school at the university but showed little interest. 

A painting of his mothers family in New Orleans in their office. They were cotton merchants by trade.

He greatly admired the artist Ingres and when they met he told him to “draw lines, draw many lines.” In 1855, he was accepted into the Parisian school of art, the École des Beaux-Arts.  Even before college he had already received permission to copy the works of art at the Louvre to practice the painting techniques of the old masters and turned his room into an artists studio. 

He greatly admired the fellow French artists, Jean Augusta Dominque Ingres, Eugene Delacroix, and Honore-Victorin Daumier who was a political satirist at this time.

In the beginning of his art career, he did have some successes within the mainstream art world, the salon. He gradually lost interest in their usual stylistic requirements and snobbish attitudes. He joined a group of young artists, what the media referred to as “impressionists” in their independent art shows. Degas hated the term “impressionist” and mocked the artists who worked outside. He still organized their shows and created beautiful works of art in his own style.

Painting depicting the French salon

The mediums he used was oil and soft pastels. His personal style was truly distinctive. He was more of a realistic painter, capturing the work life of Parisians and others. He would often crop the picture plane very different than others. He always worked inside his studio, either from memory or from photographs that he took for reference. He made a variety of different sketches and paintings with the same subject, moving objects and people around creating different compositions.

“The Little Dancer” – 1881

He also worked in bronze on occasion

Early in his career, he did occasionally paint ancient themes but mostly it was from real life. Focusing on the lives of working class people. He loved ballerinas and the race track.

During the Franco-Prussian war he enlisted to fight and wasn’t painting as much. But they had discovered a problem with his eyesight and he was discharged from the military to continue his art career. His eyesight got gradually worse and it effected his paintings. He would often blame the unfinished look of his work on his sight and the colors he used had changed too.

I find the use of color and the unfinished feel of his work charming.

He chose to crop the picture very differently than others artists.

Edgar Degas was of the opinion that an artist was meant to be alone. He never married but had a few intimate relationship with women such as Mary Cassatt. He was greatly admired by other artists including Mary Cassatt and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec but never had students. 

He died on September 27, 1917 at the age of 83. He had a mixed reputation that was marred by his anti-Semitic sentiments later in life. I don’t usually concern myself with the personal lives of artists so separating that I love his work. He creates an intimate look at the mundane life of mortal beings. I find his work very inspiring as an artist myself.

My own watercolors of ballerinas.

To learn more about Edgar Degas please visit the following websites:



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