Edgar Degas seems never to have reconciled himself to the label of "impressionist" preferring to call himself a "realist" or "Independent." Nevertheless, he was one of the group’s founders, an organizer of its exhibitions, and one of its most important core members. Like the Impressionists, he sought to capture fleeting moments in the flow of modern life, yet he showed little interest in painting plain air landscapes, favoring scenes in theaters and cafés illuminated by artificial light, which he used to clarify the contours of his figures, adhering to his academic training.
Degas was born in 1834, the scion of a wealthy banking family, and was educated in the classics, including Latin, Greek, and ancient history, at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. His father recognized his son’s artistic gifts early, and encouraged his efforts at drawing by taking him frequently to Paris museums. Degas began by copying Italian Renaissance paintings at the Louvre, and trained in the studio of Louis Lamothe, who taught in the traditional Academic style, with its emphasis on line and its insistence on the crucial importance of draftsmanship. Degas was also strongly influenced by the paintings and frescoes he saw during several long trips to Italy in the late 1850s; he made many sketches and drawings of them in his notebooks.
Evidence of Degas’s classical education can be seen in his relatively static, frieze-like early painting, Young Spartans Exercising (ca. 1860; National Gallery, London), done while he was still in his twenties. Yet despite the title, and the suggestion of classical drapery on some of the figures in the background, there is little that places the subject of this painting in ancient Greece. Indeed, it has been noted that the young girls have the snub noses and immature bodies of "Montmartre types," the forerunners of the dancers Degas painted so often throughout his career. After 1865, when the Salon accepted his history painting The Misfortunes of the City of Orléans (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), Degas did not paint Academic subjects again, focusing his attention on scenes of modern life. He began to paint scenes of such urban leisure activities as horse racing and, after about 1870, of café-concert singers and ballet dancers.
Degas’s choice of subject matter reflects his modern approach. He favored scenes of ballet dancers, laundresses, milliners, the figure’s pose is difficult to decipher, viewed from a steep angle with both her feet and her head at the bottom of the picture, yet it conveys a sense of the dancer’s flexibility.
Degas absorbed artistic tradition and outside influences and reinterpreted them in innovative ways. Following the opening of trade with Japan in 1854, many French artists, including Degas, were increasingly influenced by Japanese prints. But whereas his contemporaries often infused their paintings with Eastern imagery Degas abstracted from these prints their inventive compositions and points of view, particularly in his use of cropping and asymmetry. Degas had also observed how sixteenth-century Italian mannerists similarly framed their subjects, sometimes cutting off part of a figure. For example, in A Woman Seated Beside a Vase of Flowers, through the decades until Dancers, Pink and Green, which displays a subtle grasp of the characteristic postures and attire of the top-hatted gentlemen he portrays. By 1885, most of his more important works were done in pastel. He submitted a suite of nudes, all rendered in pastel, to the final Impressionist exhibition in 1886; among these was Woman Bathing in a Shallow Tub, which depicts another of Degas’s favorite themes, the use of hatching gives a sense of swaying grass. The immediacy of the moment is captured in the raised leg of the horse in the foreground and the foreshortened, angled approach of the vigorous horse in the background. The Singer in Green, an unusual work from this period, is an unexpected instance of Degas presenting an outdoor scene with no figures, which shows an imaginative and expressive use of color and freedom of line that may have arisen, at least in part, as a result of his struggle to adapt to his deteriorating vision.
Degas continued working as late as 1912, when he was forced to leave the studio in Montmartre in which he had labored for more than twenty years. He died five years later in 1917, at the age of eighty-three.
Etude d'Apres 'La Sibille de Delphe'.
1855-56. Original pencil drawing with white gouache. SOLD.