Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas
Though considered a member of the original core group of French Impressionists, Edgar Degas (Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas), always stood apart, both in his approach to painting, in which he considered himself a realist rather than an Impressionist, and in his emphasis on drawing.

Amid a group that downplayed the role of drawing in art in deference to the immediacy of painting the fleeting effects of light (Monet went so far as to hide the role drawing played in his art), Degas was arguably one of the finest draftsmen of the 19th Century.

Degas was part of the Impressionist group socially, and hung out at the Café Guerbois with artists in and around their circle, including Manet, Cézanne, Renoir, Monet, Sisley, Bazille and Pissarro, though he often argued with them.

He helped organize the Impressionists’ out-of-the-mainstream independent exhibits, and exhibited in all but one of them. More financially stable then the others, he also collected works by painters in and around their circle, like Pissarro, Gauguin, Cézanne and Manet.

In his painting style, however, he never adopted the broken dots of color, painting of light effects or fondness for landscape championed by Monet and the other Impressionists, and was derisive of their practice of plein air painting.

He instead continued in the vein of the realists like Courbet and Corot (who, we forget today, were radical in their own time). Degas, too was radical in his own way, particularly in his dramatic compositions, which broke the laws of academic painting as surely as his contemporaries did with their deliberate rejection of academic traditions.

Like the Impressionists, Degas was very influenced by the work of Édouard Manet, who he met while both were copying the same painting in the Louvre (a practice common to serious art students at the time), but Degas also carried with him his admiration for artists like Ingres and Delacroix.

Degas, particularly in his later work, did share with the Impressionists the use of bold, painterly brushwork and vivid colors; and this, as well as his compositional innovations, carried over into his intensely expressive pastel drawings, which may be the most recognizable of his works today.

With their familiar subjects of ballet rehearsals, horse racing and women at the bath, Degas’ pastels are beautifully drawn, innovatively realized and striking in their graphic power.

Degas also drew beautifully in other media, and was accomplished at etching, lithography and sculpture.

There is currently an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York of Degas Drawings and Sketchbooks that is on display until January 23, 2011. The Online Exhibition on the website lets you flip through a selection of drawings and a sketchbook from the exhibit. Use the “See thumbnails” choice at left and when using the Zoomable views, be sure to choose the “Full Screen” option below the image to the right of the zooming controls.

Degas has become one of the most popular and revered artists in the world, and there are more resources in print and on the web than I can begin to list here; so I will instead point you to a general search on Amazon for Degas, and the extensive lists of web resources for Degas on ArtCyclopedia, including museum listings and image archives (see the tabs at the top of the list for other categories).


11 Replies to “Edgar Degas”

  1. I recall seeing the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen at Museu de Arte de São Paulo in Brazil at Degas exhibit a couple of years ago and that was astonishing.
    Later, I had the opportunity to see more in d’Orsay and totally agree to Erika!
    Thanks for sharing these, Charley :)

  2. Great right up, I’m very excited to see the exhibit.

    This reminds me of the book, “The Judgment of Paris” by Ross King. Anyone interested in Degas and his peers should read this book, very interesting detailed story of the rise of impressionism.

  3. There was a marvelous exhibition at the Clarke museum in Williamstown, Mass. called Picasso Looks at Degas. It showed Picasso’s fascination with the work of Degas and had many pairs of works in which Picasso created his own take on something Degas had done. Truly an example of the difference between “borrowing” and “stealing”.

  4. The best-known Degas – the dancers, bathers, cafe and cabaret scenes – have always left me a little cold: something about the grays, always made them seem ashy to me and kind of dead.

    Then I ran across some of his horse racing and seaside paintings in some museum show and kind of felt like: OK, now I get it. They’re wonderful: fresh, colorful, alive in a way that the more famous stuff isn’t.

    I’m always a little surprised that those paintings aren’t more often reproduced and better known.

  5. Copying Degas images is great fun, and I would be happy to spend years in this pursuit. Only by copying him have I begun to see his way of thinking just a little more clearly…and that is just a little.

    His skin tomes and his use of color are extraordinary. I am still working on understanding his impressive take on composition. Good for us he didn’t do what his peers were doing – he gave even more!

  6. I’ve had a wonderful dose of Degas this summer and fall. I saw ‘Picasso Looks at Degas’ at the Clarke in early August.
    A month ago, in Vancouver, B.C., I visited ‘The Modern Woman’ exhibition at VAG which featured Impressionist drawings. It was an excellent and comprehensive show with a very nice and reasonably priced catalogue. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t seem to have any other venues. Here’s a link to the Orsay info –

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